National Security & Defense

China Makes Its Latest Power Play in the East China Sea

Chinese soldiers stand guard on the Spratly Islands in February. (Stringer/Reuters)
It’s betting that the U.S. will let its continued aggression go unchecked.

Just when you thought it might be safe to go back into the water . . .

Last month, the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration sharply rebuked China over its bogus claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea — claims it’s used to bully and intimidate every country bordering the sea’s shores. 

The Hague ruled those claims had “no legal basis,” and went on to condemn China’s ongoing construction of artificial islands out of coral reefs in the South China Sea atoll marked on the map as the Spratlys, to which numerous countries have claims but which China wants as its own for air strips and other military facilities.

Of course, no one really expected China would back down or stop building what our Pacific Command (PACOM) Commander-in-Chief Admiral Harry Harris has dubbed its “Great Wall of Sand” in the Spratlys. Indeed, China’s defiance has gotten to the point where it announced it was going to stage naval exercises in the area together with Russia, and planned unilaterally to close off sections of the South China Sea.

But anyone who thought China’s maritime outrages were going to limit themselves to the South China Sea got a rude awakening this past week. Now China stepped up pressure on Japan in the East China Sea around the other archipelago China claims as its own, namely Japan’s Senkaku Islands.

For five successive days Chinese fishing boats backed by Coast Guard vessels have all but surrounded the Senkakus, complicating Japanese access to its own islands; while the other day Japanese surveillance discovered an ocean-radar facility planted on one of China’s nearby offshore natural-gas platforms. (Like the South China Sea, the East China Sea has extensive oil and natural-gas reserves.) That’s a clear first step by China toward militarizing the Senkakus the way it’s been asserting itself in the Spratlys.

In short, the Senkakus have become another test of the willingness of the international community, and above all the United States, to tell China that enough is enough and that its depredations must stop.

Certainly Japanese–Chinese bilateral relations, shaky to begin with, have struck a fresh reef, as it were. That relationship “is markedly deteriorating,” Japan’s foreign minister reportedly warned Beijing’s ambassador in Tokyo, “We cannot accept that [China] is taking actions that unilaterally raise tensions.” They want the radar gone and the Coast Guard vessels to clear out.

In the end it is the U.S., not Japan, that China really wants to oust from the East China Sea.

One can only say, good for the Japanese. But the real issue is what the U.S. is prepared to do, because in the end it is the U.S., not Japan, that China really wants to oust from the East China Sea.

The reason is strategic. Like the Spratlys, the Senkakus constitute the “first island chain” that China covets as a way to secure its access to the world’s waterways and to dominate its East Asian neighbors. The No. 1 obstacle to that strategy is the U.S., and specifically the U.S. Navy, plus the U.S.’s military and air bases facing onto the East China Sea, including Okinawa — the principal anchor of the U.S. military presence in the area since the end of World War II.

China’s establishing clear sovereignty over the Senkakus would limit U.S. freedom of action from bases in Japan like Okinawa, and would be a signal defeat for the U.S. and its allies in the region — and a major victory for China’s drive to establish an unchallengeable hegemony across the entire Western Pacific.

That’s a hegemony no one, least of all the U.S. and Japan, can afford to tolerate. Yet that’s precisely what the Obama administration’s feckless but high-sounding “pivot to the Pacific” has allowed to happen.

Our weak, vacillating policy in the South China Sea has been more than matched by our reluctance to do more to support Japan in the East China Sea beyond vague verbal assurances. China knows it can get away with geopolitical grand larceny as long as Obama remains in the White House and John Kerry in Foggy Bottom. That’s one reason why its actions in both seas have been so blatant. Whoever occupies the Oval Office come next January is bound to be less accommodating, and more assertive of U.S. interests, than its current occupant. So China is looking to grab while the grabbing is good, with one eye on the calendar and the other on a U.S.–Japan alliance they hope gets steadily frayed as a result of our relative inaction in the face of China’s outrages.

The Japanese are learning the hard way: When Obama says he has your back, watch out.


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