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CommentInsight & Opinion

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

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This article is now closed to comments

lamlm38
correction: the chinese are not the only one screaming abt former Japanese atrocities u dumb ****!!.. how abt the south koreans!!! they are democracies arent they?
so the chinese should just bend over and take it in the **** to prove they are responsible power?
ur comments are just a total affront to the chinese race around the world..!!!
hojames
First China cannot restrict her actions and simply give up just because of other countries' self-centered policies or perceptions. It is a struggle between competing civilizations that has been going on for centuries. Second the issue of who is creating the tensions in the first place is debatable and mainstream opinion will vary in accordance with time. Perhaps you or your grandson will not be writing in this tone and manner in 50 or 100 years' time,
justice_first
There are two fundamental issues: 1. To whom the islands really belong ? 2. Why is Japan taking such a hard stand against China after 41 years of peace ? If the author of the article cares to examine these issues, he will understand why China is right to protect its territorial integrity. Japan seized the islands during the first Sino Japanese war of 1895. It was never legitimate as it alleged. The so called annexation into Okinawa that same year when it seized Taiwan was a pure act of aggression. Japan largely evaded this history and the results of WW2 and argues with "legal" interpretations. The logic is if you control it you own it: the same logic used by a thief !
Japan is now using the Treaty of San Francisco as their "ground" for administering the islands. This is unfair to China because it was not a party to that treaty, and is not bound by it. So how come Japan got to administer the islands in the first place ?
justice_first
The author is saying that Japan feels threatened because of China's rise. The truth is China has never threatened Japan at least for the past 41 years before 2012. There was a tacit agreement reached between the leaders on both sides to shelve the dispute in 1972, and then publicly announced to the world in 1978 by China's Senior Leader Deng Xiaoping himself. The author has taken japan's acting ( called a farce by China) as real. South Korea does not feel threatened by China's rise, nor Russia. Why ? This is because China was never a threat.
Japan has "created" this China threat for its own purpose/goal of amending the peace constitution and to rearm to become a military power, by using the US pivot to Asia.
I disagree with the author's point of view 100%. He got it upside down.
caractacus
This article is absolutely correct and on the button. China's actions do not match its words and it is unlikely they ever will. A leopard cannot change its spots.
It is ironic that China is now behaving with a racial arrogance and aggression similar to that exhibited by Japan in the 1930's. The Chinese tactic of trying to hold the moral advantage by continually screaming about former Japanese atrocities has worn thin. It no longer works on the Japanese of a newer generation and is only alienating more and more people in the rest of the world, especially those with constitutional government, the rule of law and respect for individual freedoms.
Why does China not change its behaviour? Face. Chinese cannot look at themselves in a cold, hard light, they have to maintain the fictitious conceit that they are always in the right.
Unfortunately, one day it will all end in tears for them, just as did their first encounters with the West. They will become victims of their own natures and either tear each other apart internally or be chastened by war.
ryszard.ewiak.5
Unfortunately, another world war is inevitable, like death, but not yet. In Revelation we read: "And another horse came forth, a red horse: and to him that sat thereon it was given to take peace from the earth, and that they should slay one another: and there was given unto him a great sword [a nuclear sword]. And when he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, Come. And I saw, and behold, a black horse; and he that sat thereon had a balance in his hand [food will be rationed]. And I heard as it were a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, A quart [about a liter] of wheat for a denarius [a full day's wages], and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the olive oil and the wine [species resistant to drought]." (Revelation 6:4-6) However now we can still sleep peacefully. Before that, Russia will return. (Daniel 11:29a) This, in this context, means crisis, which will eclipse the Great Depression. Not only the eurozone will break up, but also the European Union and NATO. Then many countries of the former Eastern block will return to Russia's zone of influence. Russian troops will be stationed here again. This will be the last sign before WWIII. (Daniel 11:29b, 30a; Numbers 24:23, 24; Matthew 24:7) There are many indications that flash point will be Georgia and its breakaway provinces.
321manu
This is akin to a couple of 6 year olds arguing about who did what to whom first. Nationalism does tend to reduce adults to the cognitive level of pre-pubescent kids, it seems. Why are people so focussed on a bunch of uninhabitable rocks? It's the access to the surrounding sea floor, and the potential treasure of natural resources, that people are interested in. So forget the silly nationalism, sign a treaty to form a bilateral conglomerate, and drill baby drill.
whymak
lamlm38:
Let you in on a secret. Reader caractacus prays every night that every Chinese will be wiped off from the face of the earth. His prayer chants start with 100 repeats "Death to China" and end the same way.

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