World

China’s Growing Aggression on the High Seas

Soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy stand guard in the Spratly Islands in 2016. (Stringer/Reuters)
China may have moved too quickly in the South and East China Seas, alerting the world to its ambitions.

I’ve had to wait on the tarmac for planes ahead of mine to take off before, but never F-15s. Naha airport here shares a runway with Japan’s Air Self Defense Forces, leading to delays whenever Japanese fighters scramble to counter Chinese incursions into the airspace above the Senkaku island chain in the East China Sea. The pace of such incursions has accelerated over the last half decade. The Japanese scrambled a high of 1,168 times in 2016, mostly in response to Chinese activity. The sight of active afterburners on a U.S. commercial runway would be shocking. In Okinawa, it’s everyday life.

More than 1 million Okinawans share the southernmost prefecture of Japan with some 25,000 U.S. air, ground, naval, and Marine forces. More than half of U.S. bases in Japan are located within these 463 square miles. The crowded space has long been a site of tension. A brutal crime committed against a local girl by American soldiers in 1996 precipitated negotiations between the United States and Japan over the consolidation and relocation of our forces.

The process has been delayed by local and national Japanese politics. Opposition to the expansion of Camp Schwab in the less densely populated northern part of the island to replace Futenma airbase became a rallying cry for opposition lawmakers. The prefectural governor, Denny Tamaki, was elected on an anti-expansion platform last October. Tamaki defeated the candidate backed by Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party by a surprisingly large margin. His father was a U.S. Marine.

The national interests of the United States, Japan, and China meet in Okinawa. The island has been essential to the forward deployment of U.S. forces in Asia since World War II. The base is the keystone of the U.S.–Japan alliance. Our presence signifies America’s guarantee of Japanese security and helps sustain the economy of Japan’s poorest prefecture.

Okinawa is the gateway to mainland Asia for the United States and Japan. It is for the same reason that China views Okinawa as an obstacle. Chinese vessels must pass through the Miyako Strait south of Okinawa to reach the blue waters of the Philippine Sea and, from there, the “second island chain” encompassing the Mariana Islands, Guam, Palau, and Borneo. (The third island chain includes Hawaii.)

Rising political, diplomatic, economic, and military tensions between the United States and China have led many analysts to conclude that the two powers are beginning a “second Cold War.” Kunihiko Miyake of the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo says President Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are making the opening bids in a conflict for hegemony over the western Pacific that will last decades. Whoever first loses patience, in his view, will also lose control of the sea lines of communication essential to the economy and security of the world’s most populous region. Thus the debate in Washington has been over how best to contain China. From the perspective of China and Japan, however, China is already contained. Geography locks it in.

Tilt a map of the region 90 degrees counter-clockwise, and you see that the Sea of Japan and the East and South China Seas are not much different from great lakes. They are cordoned off by an archipelago that stretches from Japan’s Hokkaido Island through the Senakakus and Taiwan, down to the Paracel and Spratly islands as well as to the Philippines and Malaysia. These islands might be called the Great Wall of Democracy. They limit the force-projection capability of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). And their governments present an ideological alternative to the authoritarianism of the Communist Party.

China has responded by building artificial islands in the South China Sea and investing in Anti-Access/Area-Denial weaponry targeting U.S. naval and air forces. Yet former Japanese admiral Yoji Koda observes that, while China might be able to create new islands, it can’t change the location of entire countries. China must break through the first island chain to challenge U.S. supremacy over the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.

The analysts with whom I met during my week in Japan, on a trip sponsored by its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are skeptical that the Chinese military will confront the United States directly. Beijing’s strategy seems rather to be the slow erosion of America’s position through harassment, attrition, the weakening of alliances, and a steady increase of deterrent capability. The incessant violations of Japanese airspace, and the entry of the Chinese coast guard into Japanese waters, are elements of this program. So are Chinese island building and the harassment of American planes and freedom-of-navigation patrols in the South China Sea.

Last September, a Chinese warship came within 45 yards of the Decatur, an American destroyer, as it sailed near the Spratly Islands. For U.S. analysts, the incident represented a change in Chinese rules of engagement. The PLA is more accepting of risk. Its quickened activity has established a new normal in theater. China might not seek a frontal confrontation with U.S. forces at this time, but the wish is father to the thought. The risk of accidental conflict goes up as China becomes more active, more determined, and more belligerent.

China is ready to exploit vulnerabilities in the U.S. alliance structure. At present, the weak link can be found on the Korean peninsula. There is worry here that Korean president Moon Jae-in puts reunification with the north ahead of denuclearization. Caught between China to its west, Manchuria to its north, and Japan to its east, Korea traditionally has allied itself with the strongest power. For Moon, that power is China. The already fraught situation could worsen if divides emerge between Moon and President Trump, or between Moon and a Korean military that is skeptical of his plans. To the Japanese, instability on the peninsula reinforces the importance of the alliance with the United States.

China is not a ten-foot giant. It may have moved too aggressively and too quickly in the South and East China Seas, alerting the world to its ambitions and spurring Japan to spend more on defense. China also seems more interested in showing off its military modernization and strength than investing in strategic capabilities such as additional nuclear subs and unmanned underwater vehicles. The PLA is building its third aircraft carrier even though surface platforms are vulnerable to air, sea, and ground-based missile attack.

China doesn’t have many friends. It is deeply distrusted even by putative allies. The strategic links between China and Russia represented by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, coordination in the Arctic Ocean, and joint participation in the Vostok 2018 war exercise have yet to manifest themselves at the tactical level. Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, heralded as a shift in global economic power toward Eurasia, have run into trouble as participant nations worry they may be ensnared in a Chinese debt trap. China’s heavy-handed behavior at the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea alienated smaller powers. Its partners tend not to carry much geostrategic weight. Djibouti is not Singapore.

America’s treaty alliances with NATO, Japan, and the Republic of Korea are not just legacies of World War II and the Cold War. They constitute the steel frame of the American-led liberal international order that has kept a lid on great-power war for more than 70 years. A visit to Japan reminds you that American power is appreciated at least as much as, if not more than, it is resented. A visit to Japan reminds you that the alliance system is essential to a Pacific Ocean secured by ships flying Old Glory, not patrolled by destroyers bearing flags of gold stars in fields of red.

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