National Security & Defense

Will China Start a War with Japan?

Chinese ships steam near the disputed Senkau Islands, April 2013. (Reuters photo: Kyodo)
Putin’s takeover of Crimea gave the Chinese a model for territorial aggression. There are signs they might use it.

Russian president Vladimir Putin denied that the green-fatigued, insignia-free soldiers who popped up in the Crimea were Russian; they were only “local self-defense forces,” he said. After those “little green men,” as they quickly came to be known, had cut the Crimea off from mainland Ukraine, and the Crimea had been annexed to Russia, Putin bragged that “of course” there had been “Russian servicemen” in the Crimea. “They acted very appropriately,” he said; also “decisively and professionally.”

Putin’s little green men look like the inspiration for a new Chinese operation around Japan’s Senkaku Islands. Beijing claims the Senkakus — or the “Diaoyu Islands,” as they’re called in China — as an inseparable part of Chinese territory, in the same way they’ve claimed Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet, Taiwan, and all of the South China Sea. Pursuant to that claim, Beijing has begun prodding Japan with a Chinese fishing fleet; Bloomberg’s Eli Lake has already dubbed them the “little green boats.”

Per the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which both Japan and China are party, the area within 200 nautical miles of a country’s coast is its “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ), where it has exclusive drilling and fishing rights. Since early August, China has sent between 200 and 300 fishing boats into Japan’s EEZ — along with 28 armed Chinese Coast Guard ships as an escort.

The Chinese Coast Guard, which is technically part of the “People’s Armed Police,” functions as a de facto branch of Communist China’s military, spreading Chinese will by force. Chinese Coast Guard ships have interdicted and harassed Indonesian boats in Indonesian waters, Malaysian boats in Malaysian waters, and Philippine boats in Philippine waters. They’ve interdicted, harassed, and sunk Vietnamese boats in Vietnamese waters.

The Chinese fishing fleet has also served as an unofficial branch of China’s adventuresome military; according to the Hong Kong–based Asia Sentinel, “China boasts the world’s largest commercial fishing fleet, but it is a matter of debate among security analysts as to [the] extent to which China’s fishing fleet constitutes a paramilitary force. . . . Somehow a swarm of Chinese fishing boats always seem [sic] to materialize on cue in disputes in the East and South China Sea.” Chinese fishing boats have rammed Japanese boats, and rammed and sunk Vietnamese boats.

Japan’s fear is this: China’s fishing fleet, after probing Japan’s ability to respond to incursions into its EEZ, will suddenly begin to deposit commandos, disguised as fisherman, on the uninhabited Senkakus. These little green men will then build beachheads and repeat the Chinese claim that the islands are, in fact, Chinese territory — forcing Japan to either start a war to evict them or concede China’s claim.

The American fear should be this: Unlike the Crimea, the Senakakus fall under the protection of an American mutual-defense treaty, the treaty we signed with Japan in 1951. The application of that treaty to the Senakukus has been confirmed by none other than President Obama, as recently as 2014. If Japan goes to war with China over the Senkakus, we will be obliged to follow them.

Given China’s belligerent, neo-imperialist behavior over the last decade, that may already be inevitable. But either way, the situation demands attention — and, if possible, nipping in the bud.

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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