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Senkakus Could Be Undoing of Asia Pivot

Would U.S., Japan Go To War With China Over Islands?

Apr. 16, 2013 - 09:27AM   |  
By WENDELL MINNICK   |   Comments
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TAIPEI — America’s strategic rebalancing toward the Pacific — known as the “Asia pivot” — could meet its first unwanted test over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, now being challenged for control by China.

Could the Asia pivot’s true fulcrum be located on these desolate, rocky outcrops in the East China Sea? China, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands, claims they were stolen from it after World War II. Over the past two years, Beijing has taken aggressive actions to intimidate Japanese Coast Guard vessels in charge of safeguarding the islands’ territorial boundaries.

There are concerns an accidental war could be triggered by miscalculation or by China, in the spirit of nationalism, taking a calculated risk by invading the islands.

The question many are asking is: Would Washington fulfill its defense treaty obligations with Japan by taking an active military role to remove Chinese forces from the islands? Or would the U.S. hesitate for political and economic reasons to placate China? If so, what would this mean for regional confidence in America’s commitments to peace and stability?

This could be America’s “Suez moment,” said Paul Giarra, who heads Global Strategies & Transformation, a national defense and strategic planning consulting firm in Washington. It could be the moment when America, hobbled by massive debt, domestic political spasms and the lingering wounds of two exhaustive wars, finally realizes, as did Great Britain during the Suez crisis of 1956, that its ability to fulfill its international strategic commitment in a complex, multipolar world ends.

And if the U.S. fails to uphold its treaty obligations to Japan in such a scenario, could this force Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines to question whether it is in their best interests to cater to a declining superpower that is no longer able to meet the minimum requirements of its pledges during a crisis? Or will the U.S., guided by the lights of a bygone era of being the unilateral superhero, dive into a war with an economic superpower that does not share America’s cost-benefit morality or its reciprocal military restraint?

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In effect, what would stop China from attacking mainland U.S. targets if the U.S. first attacked land-based ballistic-missile facilities on mainland China?

“This becomes a game of chicken,” said Dean Cheng, a China specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. “Would the Japanese be willing to attack or sink a Chinese freighter carrying water? What if the Chinese garrison was resupplied by civilian fishing boats, fired up by patriotic fervor?”

Options for Japan

Reaction in Tokyo to a Chinese military takeover of the islands also might spark vacillation. The Japanese government would first go to the United Nations Security Council, on which China and the U.S. sit, “before taking any measures against China,” said Yoshi Nakai, a professor of Chinese politics at Gakushuin University, Tokyo.

If the U.S. did not back up Japan’s claims with military assistance, the Japanese would be “very disappointed,” and “political pressure for the revision of [Japan’s pacifist] Constitution would certainly increase,” Nakai said.

Masashi Nishihara, president of Japan’s Research Institute for Peace and Security, said, “U.S. failure to assist Japan on the Senkakus” would be a “serious blow to the alliance.”

For the U.S. to stay out of the conflict would require “some legal gymnastics to explain away repeated assurances that the treaty covers the Senkakus,” said Toshi Yoshihara, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

Part of the problem in securing U.S. military assistance is the vast range of Chinese invasion scenarios. Nishihara said it could simply be a fleet of Chinese fishing boats that have militia disguised as fishermen who land “en masse” on the disputed islands.

“Because it will not be an armed attack, the security treaty will not be invoked, and the U.S. may not be involved,” he said.

Losing the islands to China would cause problems for security in the Western Pacific, Nishihara said.

If China took the islands, it would probably build radar installations and helicopter ports. This would enable China to gather intelligence on Japanese and U.S. military activities in Okinawa and the Sakishima Islands.

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Chinese control of the islands also would weaken Japan’s front line of defense, Nishihara said. The Taiwan Strait is vital for the U.S. in its defense of Taiwan, and the southwestern island chain is critical to both China and the U.S.-Japanese alliance.

China has been using “creeping expansionism” to intimidate Japan in the area, he said. Chinese ships have recently entered the contiguous zone between Japan’s Sakishima Islands. Harassment of Japanese Coast Guard vessels by nationalistic Chinese and even Taiwanese fishermen continues in the area.

Nishihara said he believes that China is pressuring Japan to capitulate and drive a wedge into its security partnership with the United States.

Light and Heavy Campaigns

Scenarios abound, Yoshihara said. These include light to heavy campaigns to take the islands. A light campaign would involve rapid seizure of the islands by special operations forces and civilian assets with the goal of catching the Japanese Coast Guard and Navy off guard.

“Civilian vessels could be used to overwhelm the defenses at sea while complicating Japanese rules of engagement,” he said. “Militia and military forces could disembark from nonmilitary vessels, allowing the Chinese to land forces and establish some sort of beachhead.”

However, once ashore, the Chinese forces would face mounting problems, including the lack of heavy equipment and supplies to dig in and entrench their defensive positions. They may be too light to defend and hold their positions against sustained shore bombardment by Japanese warships and aircraft.

“Moreover, they risk being cut off from resupply if Japan and the United States are able to establish a maritime quarantine around the contested islands. An isolated garrison would not be able to feed itself or rearm. It would then be a matter of time,” Yoshihara said.

A heavier military campaign would compel the Chinese to forgo the element of surprise and speed. The preparations for a major amphibious assault on the islands would not escape the attention of Japanese and U.S. intelligence, he said.

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“Remember also that Chinese forces would still have to cross the East China Sea to reach the islands,” and the “distance between Wenzhou in Zhejiang province and the Senkakus is over 200 miles,” Yoshihara said.

With sufficient early warning, the Japanese and U.S. navies could be in place to repel such an assault.

If the Chinese could not be pushed off the islands diplomatically or via air or sea bombardment, Japan would not be able to pull off a counter-amphibious assault of its own to dislodge Chinese forces there. Only the U.S. Marine Corps is equipped and trained to conduct forcible entry, Yoshihara said.

A counter-amphibious assault seems unlikely, as Chinese forces on the islands would have had little time to prepare fortifications, Cheng said. Many assume that island battles will be replays of Tarawa and Iwo Jima during World War II, but the Japanese had about a year to prepare Tarawa and even longer for Iwo Jima. This means aerial and sea-based bombardment of the islands would take their toll.

The question remains: Are the Japanese ready to commit to a military engagement with Chinese forces over a couple of rocks? Cheng said he wonders if Japan has honed the command-and-control skills needed. Who would be in charge of such an operation — the Japanese Navy or Army — “for one of the most complex operations” since World War II?

Japanese vacillation and disorganization could give the Chinese Air Force the “upper hand if they can generate more shore-based sorties from airfields on the mainland,” Yoshihara said.

The Chinese military also could widen the war by employing its missile forces against Japanese bases to punish Tokyo while avoiding those that host U.S. forces as a stratagem to isolate Japan, he said.

China also could “turn on its larger anti-access force,” like the Dong Feng 21D anti-ship ballistic missile, to take out Japanese or even U.S. ships engaging Chinese forces on the islands, Yoshihara said.

“To me, it’s a classic problem in war,” he said. “It’s easy to start a fight, but it’s hard to finish it.”

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