China’s dangerous brinkmanship in maritime Northeast Asia
6 Feb 2013|
Is China getting too close to the edge?

China’s behaviour over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute with Japan is deeply worrisome. It not only displays a level of brinkmanship which could easily lead to war, it also seems to be part of a broader maritime ‘probing’ strategy designed to constantly test the resolve of Japan and its US ally. The result could be even greater instability in Northeast Asia.

At least twice in the past two weeks, Chinese forces directed a fire-control radar at a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) vessel and helicopter. The key question is whether such dangerous crisis management reflects a deliberate strategy on the part of Beijing or if it was due to a lack of coordination among the key actors. According to media reports, the later seems closer to the truth. It seems that only now is China’s management of the dispute under direct command and coordination of a top-level task force led by General Secretary Xi Jinping.

All good then? Not necessarily. While a direct military confrontation over the islands can hopefully be avoided this time, future prospects for Northeast Asian stability look rather grim. For one, the establishment of the task force shows that maritime disputes with Japan have now assumed the same status as the Chinese aim of reunification with Taiwan. That means that compromise over this issue will likely be extremely difficult and a constant source of friction between Japan and China. It will also further complicate China’s strategic relationship with the United States.

Moreover, China seems determined to move to the next stage of its naval strategy designed to coerce neighbours into accepting its growing military power and maritime claims. Stage one has been to develop an ‘anti-access/ area-denial’ (A2/AD) capability to threaten US forward bases in Northeast Asia and target US carrier strike groups. The aim of this strategy is to make it potentially prohibitively costly for US forces to enter in a regional conflict, particularly over the Taiwan Straits. This is a significant development, and the PLA has made rapid progress towards this goal.

However, this asymmetric ‘anti-carrier strategy’ is only one element in China’s long-term trajectory towards a much more balanced, blue water force in order project power into the wider Western Pacific Ocean, backed by modern nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. But there’s a third element to the broader strategy—China is increasingly employing non-military elements of sea power as part of a ‘probing’ strategy to test US’ and allies’ resolve in those maritime disputes which fall in a ‘grey area’ between war and peace.

This is what’s happening right now over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. China has deployed a mix of maritime surveillance and coast guard assets to harass its Japanese counterparts, with military forces playing an auxiliary function. By doing so, Beijing is testing the US and its allies to determine the limits of US deterrence commitment. Japan is already deeply alarmed by what is sees as China’s  ‘creeping maritime expansion’.  This pattern of Chinese maritime behaviour will also increasingly play out in the South China Sea.

Maritime Northeast Asia is becoming even more volatile. China will continue to try to push the maritime boundaries in conflicts with Japan and potentially even South Korea. The increased use of non-military elements of sea power in combination with a more powerful Chinese navy will provide major challenges for regional stability, the US and its allies. This is also because the coordination between these various elements of China’s naval power in times of crisis largely remains a mystery—albeit one that has become a little clearer with the recent reports. Beijing’s ‘probing’ of Japan’s resolve will also lead Tokyo to move even closer to its US ally and could even create the conditions for overcoming constitutional barriers to the use of military power. Such a development, however, would likely raise alarm bells in some neighbouring countries, particularly South Korea.

It’s time for the US and its Asian allies to establish some maritime ‘red lines’ in Northeast Asia. While this is difficult to do, one way would be to signal the intent and capability to exploit China’s ‘chokepoint dilemma’. While the PLA Navy can certainly make life very difficult for any force entering the Taiwan Strait, the moment its surface and undersea systems deploy into the open ocean, the ‘tyranny of geography’ works to its disadvantage. It is than exposed to a highly sophisticated US and allied maritime surveillance architecture, and also faces a far superior US Navy and significant JMSDF capabilities.

In short, the US and its Asian allies could complicate China’s planning process by increasing their activities to develop their own A2/AD strategy in the ‘first’ and ‘second island chains’. This requires more investments in offensive submarine warfare, enhanced anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capacities, offensive and defensive mining, as well as land-based and long-range strike capabilities. While the PLA will certainly flex naval muscles in the years ahead, it won’t be able to exercise sea control in the Western Pacific, ultimately forcing Beijing to accept limitations of its growing maritime power.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user su-lin.