Beijing needs to demonstrate its peaceful intent in regional waters

Trefor Moss calls on China to lead by taking a less aggressive stance over territorial disputes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2013, 6:54pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2013, 9:11pm

They said it would be no contest. In the confrontation between rising China and waning Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, there could only be one winner.

The trends were pointing in China's favour. Beijing's defence budget is already twice the size of Tokyo's and rising by 10 per cent a year, while Tokyo's military spending has been flat for over a decade. China's strategy would be to exhaust Japan in a deliberate marathon - to build up its forces over time, ratchet up the pressure and widen the capability gap a little more each year - until the Japanese, unable to keep up, would eventually cede the disputed islands to China.

This is no longer the Japan that will bend over backwards to avoid conflict. It has red lines

If that really is China's plan, it isn't working. The Japan Self-Defence Forces are currently engaged in a huge exercise in which they are practising how to defend Japan's far southwestern islands, which include the Diaoyus/Senkakus: 34,000 troops, six navy ships and 360 aircraft are involved. Japan has also put anti-ship missiles on Miyako island, which overlooks the Miyako Strait - a crucial sea lane for Chinese vessels heading towards the Pacific - and is beefing up its coastguard units in the area.

And there's more to come. Next month, Japan is expected to announce that a new unit of marines, which it has been prepping for some time, will be commissioned. This unit will ultimately number 3,000 marines, who will essentially have one mission: to occupy and defend the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands if China threatens to invade, or to recapture them if Chinese forces have already landed.

These are not the actions of a clapped-out country which is struggling to keep pace, and which feels it cannot compete with a larger neighbour. In fact, Japan is sending China the exact opposite message: that it can, and will, defend the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, with or without American support.

China has always been wary of Japanese militarism, and memories of Japan's brutal invasion in the 1930s and 1940s still run deep. So it is ironic that China's actions - such as big defence spending increases, and repeated incursions into Japanese territorial waters - should be responsible for driving Japan's own push to improve its military capabilities.

Take the new Japanese marines, for example. The Japan Self-Defence Forces has never had a marine unit before: this was always deemed too aggressive for an army tasked explicitly with self-defence. Even five years ago, any Japanese politician suggesting that the country should establish a marine corps would probably have been fired for challenging the country's pacifist constitution.

But China's rise is loosening modern Japan's pacifist constraints. Put simply, Japan feels threatened. In this context, a regiment of marines seems not only ethically acceptable, but also a necessary deterrent.

The good news is that a tougher Japanese military should make a serious conflict over the disputed islands less likely. Japan's marines and anti-ship missiles only make the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands an even harder target for Chinese forces than they were already. And in Shinzo Abe, Japan has a prime minister who talks tougher than his predecessors. As long as Abe is running Japan, the Chinese government knows that it needs to be more cautious - that this is no longer the Japan that will bend over backwards to avoid conflict. This Japan has red lines.

Unfortunately for China, Japan is not the only country in East Asia reacting in this way. The Philippines, Vietnam and others in Southeast Asia are busy restocking their military inventories because they are uneasy about China's rise. The US military is rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific for the same reason. For the past two decades, China has been modernising its armed forces, while telling its neighbours that they have nothing to worry about. We can now see that this policy has reached the end of its useful life.

China could try a new tack: telling its neighbours that they have nothing to worry about, and then demonstrating the truth of this position through its actions. China has hardly been the only culprit when it comes to stoking tensions over disputed islands in Asian seas. But that's no reason for Beijing not to lead by example. Every time a Chinese aircraft buzzes a disputed zone, or Chinese ships commandeer a disputed islet, it reinforces the perception that Beijing's peaceful rhetoric is divorced from its aggressive actions on the ground.

As things are, Beijing can only expect Japan and other countries in the region to continue pushing back.

Chinese commentators this week tore into the Japanese government for its decision to station anti-ship missiles on Miyako, which they saw as a provocative step. They had it backwards. This was an inevitable response to increasing Chinese pressure. There will be more deployments like that one, targeting China, unless the Chinese themselves can convince their neighbours that such moves are unwarranted.

Trefor Moss is an independent journalist based in Hong Kong and a former Asia-Pacific editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. He can be followed on Twitter @Trefor1