Mainland Naval and Air Defense of Diaoyutai Impacts Asian-Pacific Strategic Picture
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
December 16, 2012
Summary: Japan recently held a general election, as it turns out, at a critical moment. For the first time ever, Mainland China sent patrol aircraft over Diaoyutai airspace to defend its sovereignty. Japanese fighters scrambled to intercept them. No actual clash occurred, but confrontations between the two sides in and around Diaoyutai are escalating. These confrontations are redrawing the strategic map of the Asian-Pacific region.
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Japan recently held a general election, as it turns out, at a critical moment. For the first time ever, Mainland China sent patrol aircraft over Diaoyutai airspace to defend its sovereignty. Japanese fighters scrambled to intercept them. No actual clash occurred, but confrontations between the two sides in and around Diaoyutai are escalating. These confrontations are redrawing the strategic map of the Asian-Pacific region.
The current wave of clashes between the Mainland and Japan over Diaoyutai were provoked by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara's "purchase" of the islands. His provocation reawakened historical memories for the Chinese people. Passions old and new flared up. Calls emerged for the settling of old scores. Japan assumed that the US-Japan Security Treaty would cover Diaoyutai, and that therefore it had nothing to fear. But the Mainland was buying time and gathering strength. Now it appears, the time is ripe.
Consider the strategic picture. The United States created its first island chain along the western rim of the Pacific. Its purpose? To deny Mainland China free access to the Pacific Ocean. Populist demagoguery by Japanese rightists is intensifying the the Diaoyutai Islands dispute. It is provoking anti-Japanese sentiment on the Mainland. It has also presented the Mainland with an opportunity to proclaim its sovereignty over Diaoyutai Island waters and to break through the first island chain.
The Mainland has seized the initiative. It has made one move after another, in rapid succession. Japan has been reduced to passivity. It is betting on US intervention. It is hoping that the US-Japan Security Treaty will cover the Diaoyutai Islands, thereby containing the Mainland.
Over the past few years, Mainland ocean surveillance ships have entered Diaoyutai Island waters with increasing frequency. In September of this year, Tokyo announced the "nationalization" of the Diaoyutai Islands. But Beijing beat Tokyo to the punch. It publicly announced its baselines for Diaoyutai Islands territorial waters. It submitted baseline coordinates, tables, charts, and continental shelf outlines to the United Nations. It announced its official nomenclature for the Diaoyutai Islands and the surrounding waters. These actions were in strict accord with international law. Step by step, Beijing laid out the legal basis for sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands.
December 13 was the 75th anniversary of the Rape of Nanking. The Mainland's State Oceanic Administration dispatched maritime surveillance aircraft into airspace only 15 kilometers from the south coast of the Diaoyutai Islands. With this, the Diaoyutai Islands dispute entered a new phase.
Since 1958 Mainland aircraft have never entered the region's airspace. On December 13, Japanese Self-Defense Force radar failed to detect reconnaissance aircraft belonging to the Mainland's Oceanic Administration. When the Japanese belated realized this, they were shocked. They hurriedly scrambled eight F-15 fighter planes and an AWACs plane to intercept it. By then the Mainland's Oceanic Administration reconnaissance aircraft had already left the scene.
The Japanese immediately lodged strong protests. But the Mainland reminded the Japanese that the ocean surveillance aircraft were operating within Diaoyutai Islands territory. Their actions were perfectly normal. Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei even told the Japanese to "desist from its illegal activities in Diaoyutai Islands waters and air space." The Oceanic Administration even described the flight as "the first air-sea 3D cruise."
The Mainland Oceanic Administration's maritime surveillance aircraft was not a military aircraft. But ocean surveillance ships and warships have entered Diaoyutai Island waters before. Now, for the first time, the Mainland has conducted a sea-air 3D cruise. It is clearly following a script.
One. The Mainland is being more emphatic in proclaiming its sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands. Two. It is normalizing missions to Diaoyutai Islands territorial waters and airspace. Three. It is resolute, and shows no fear of escalating the conflict. Four. It is using these accomplishments to consolidate the status of its current leadership. Five. It is countering United States containment in the Asian-Pacific. Using Diaoyutai as its springboard, the Mainland has made steady advances. As long as its actions do not lead to military conflict, it intends to make hay while the sun shines.
Mainland China dispatched reconnaissance aircraft. But it avoided precipitating military conflict. If it dispatches military aircraft to the Diaoyutai Islands, then the conflict will swiftly escalate. A dispute between the Mainland and Japan, will become a dispute between the Mainland and a Japan-US alliance. The United States has declared that the Diaoyutai Islands are covered by the US-Japan Security Treaty. The United States will not allow the Mainland to break through the first island chain if strategically possible.
Mainland national policy calls for stablity and growth. The outbreak of military conflict with the United States would undermine economic development, provoke to social unrest, and even endanger the regime.
The 3D cruise involved sea and air. All that remains is land. If the Mainland Oceanic Administration makes a landing on the Diaoyutai Islands, the Japanese will escalate even further. Open conflict could ensue. A handful of civilian fishing boats landing on the Diaoyutai Islands and planting flags is one thing. This would be something else altogether.
So far the Mainland authorities have not allowed civilians from the Mainland to land on the Diaoyutai Islands. Those who made landings were from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Mainland China's peaceful rise is the focus of global attention. If and when it makes its move, it will be a world-shaking event. The impact would be all pervasive.
That said, the trend is evident. Japan's economy remains in the doldrums. Its national strength has been diluted. All it can do is to follow the US lead. But the United States also has feet of clay. It can barely keep its economy afloat. Its role as a global power is significantly diminished. The Mainland is trumpeting peaceful development. Its national strength grows day by day. In response to this controversy involving a handful of small islands, it has taken the initiative and made its move. Japan remains passive. It can only wring its hands. Changes in the Asian-Pacific strategic picture may well begin in the Diaoyutai Islands.