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Rising Instability and Regional Naval Modernisation in East Asia

Commander Kamlesh Kumar Agnihotri is a Research Fellow with the China Cell of the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi.
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  • November 02, 2012

    There is growing concern around the world about developments over the last two months in the Senkaku Islands sovereignty dispute between China and Japan. The very fact that the two countries, which are otherwise engaged in a comprehensive and mutually dependent social, economic and people-to-people relationship, chose to adopt strident postures on the issue goes to show how the geopolitical situation in the region, particularly in the maritime domain, is much more precariously poised than it appears on the surface.

    The Japanese sovereignty claim over the Senkakus is based on the premise that Japan integrated the islands into Okinawa Prefecture in 1895 after conducting surveys to ascertain that the islands were uninhabited and not under the control of any other country. But China contends that its sovereignty over what it refers to as the Diaoyu Islands historically dates back to the era of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and that the Japanese pushed the weak Qing rulers to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki post the Sino-Japan War of 1894-95 ceding these islands to Japan. For its part, Taiwan claims that when Japan relinquished control over ‘Formosa’ and its administered islands post the Second World War, the Diaoyu islands, which belonged to this administrative unit, also became a part of Taiwan. Be that as it may, Taiwan has not been vehemently pressing its claim and is letting China do the needful for the time being. In the current context, Tokyo’s purchase and intended nationalisation of the Senkaku Islands has been seen as a grave provocation by both China and Taiwan. The situation is deteriorating to a degree wherein it threatens to derail their bilateral relations and create serious instability in the region.

    The Senkaku island issue is not the only issue of discord in East Asia’s maritime zone. There are other major and outstanding territorial contestations involving China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea and Taiwan. Japan has sovereignty disputes over the outlying Kurile Islands with Russia. Though all the 56 Islands of this group are under Russian jurisdiction, Japan claims the two southernmost large islands (Iturup and Kunashir) as well as two islets, which has led to the ongoing dispute. Then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s first ever visit to the Kuriles in November 2010 brought the dispute again into limelight.

    The other dispute relate to the ownership of the Dokdo/Takeshima islands between South Korea and Japan. Both countries claim sovereignty based in large part on differing interpretations of historical documents. The dispute has regularly caused diplomatic frictions between the two countries. On 10 August 2012, the President of South Korea, Lee Myung-Bak, visited the islands, which made Japan temporarily withdraw its ambassador in Seoul. Japan has made four proposals for referring the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for arbitration, the last being in 2012, but South Korea has thus far declined the offer.

    The fragility of inter-Korean relations has been more than evident in recent times. The Six-Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue have waxed and waned and finally became stalled in 2008 without the desired result of capping of the North Korean nuclear programme. North Korea has been continually involved in military skirmishes with South Korea across the northern limiting line (NLL), which it does not recognise as a boundary. The underlying tensions tend to flare up occasionally. There was a bitter standoff at sea in November 2009 wherein the naval ships of both countries fired at each other across the NLL, resulting in much damage and fatalities. The most horrific incident happened in March 2010 when a South Korean naval patrol vessel ‘Cheonan’ was apparently torpedoed and sunk by a North Korean submarine off the Korean coast, killing all 46 naval personnel on board. Responsibility could not be pinned conclusively on North Korea, resulting in South Korea not being able to respond appropriately.

    Japan, like South Korea, is also wary of the North Korean nuclear and missile development programmes. North Korea has serious differences with the United States as well. Japan and South Korea, which maintain an alliance with the United States and on whose territories US forces are based, fear retribution from North Korea on this account. Both countries want to see the North Korean nuclear programme plugged and are involved in this effort through the Six-Party talks. China, as the coordinator for the talks and as a country that wields substantial leverage over North Korea, indirectly adds more complexity to this issue.

    In addition to these disputes and over the Spratly group in the South China Sea, the most critical issue that remains outstanding is the re-unification of Taiwan with China. Although the cross-strait relationship has been improving in recent years, Taiwan is wary of reunification and the United States has expressly stated its support for Taiwan in the event of China resorting to the use of force for this purpose.

    Impact of Naval Modernisation in East Asia

    Against such a tenuous background, the ongoing naval modernisation in East Asian countries is causing the regional dynamics to become progressively more complex. A broad comparison of Japanese and Chinese naval hardware demonstrates that the PLA Navy is by far the more superior force ‘tonnage for tonnage’. While that may give an impression that the situation is pretty much loaded against Japan, the fact remains that the Japanese Navy, armed with 48 ‘major surface combatants’ including ‘helicopter destroyers’, Aegis guided-missile destroyers and 16 diesel-electric submarines, is no pushover. The ongoing fast-paced Chinese naval modernisation and specific efforts of the Japanese Navy towards hi-technology upgrade of its inventory must also be noted in this context.

    As far as the Senkaku dispute is concerned, the pressure felt by Japan from other territorial disputes with Russia and South Korea contributes to its uncompromising stance on the Senkaku, the only disputed territory under its effective control. Boundary patrols around the Senkaku are led by the civilian Japanese Coast Guard. However, the Self Defence Forces have extended their surveillance posture south of Okinawa and are being trained and equipped for the defence of outlying islands. China, on its part, has also deployed ten of its maritime surveillance ships. At the same time, ships and submarines of the PLA Navy’s East Sea Fleet are conducting extensive exercises in the East China Sea including live firing of missiles and other ordnance. Amphibious exercises for beach landing and seizure have also been conducted.

    Although Japan’s formidable defence capabilities and the US treaty guarantee constrain China’s military options in the Senkakus, Beijing’s move to assert its sovereignty claims through military presence raises the risk of collisions or other events involving serious injuries, loss of life or property. Should this happen, there will inevitably be a public outcry for an active response within China in particular, which its leadership, in the current period of political transition, may find hard to ignore. In such a situation, the possibility of a localised China-Japan military clash breaking out in the East China Sea cannot be entirely ruled out.

    While the Senkaku dispute remains on the boil, the North Koreans may also indulge in some kind of brinkmanship. They have demonstrated an astute sense of gauging the geopolitical situation for more than half a century. Their propensity to indulge in pre-emptive unilateral activities to draw maximum mileage from geopolitical complexities is also well known. One should not put it beyond them to leverage the emerging China-Japan crisis to engage in brinkmanship with the South Koreans. On 24 September 2012, Pyongyang denounced the warning shots fired by South Korean naval ships at its six fishing boats along the disputed NLL as acts of provocation. In fact, the North Korean vice Foreign Minister rhetorically warned, during his address at the UN General Assembly on 01 October 2012, that “due to the hostile American policies towards DPRK, the Korean Peninsula had become the World’s most dangerous hotspot and was [but] one spark away from nuclear war”.

    Even though the South Korean Navy is stronger than its North Korean counterpart and is modernising at a moderate pace, it also looks to the United States to keep the situation vis-à-vis North Korea under control. On the other hand, while the North Korean Navy remains pretty static in its modernisation effort, Pyongyang looks to leverage its nuclear programme and land based short range delivery systems to balance the superior South Korean naval strength. Just as Japan and South Korea bank on positive US military support, North Korea relies on the tacit, if not direct, backing of China.

    But, the American diplomatic efforts to bring back a sense of normalcy between China and Japan over the Senkakus does not seem to be having the desired calming influence. While Japan expects the United States to clearly favour its position, China, on the other hand, views Washington’s overtures as superficial at best, given its clear opposition to the increasing US involvement in the security affairs of the region. The United States, which maintains a sizeable maritime force in the region, has not helped matters in any way by announcing its ‘pivot to the Asia-Pacific’ and calling for a multilateral approach to the resolution of disputes in the South China Sea. Thus, Washington faces a real dilemma with at least three countries in the area openly soliciting its support as alliance partners, while it debates on how not to get involved directly.

    An open conflict over the Senkakus could probably eclipse even the tensions between the two Koreas and in the South China Sea, in the near term. Considering the factors of geographical proximity between China and Japan, high technological quality of Japanese ships and comparatively better professional and training standards of the Japanese Navy vis-a-vis their Chinese counterparts, a conflict, even if it were to be restricted to a localised one, would not throw up a clear winner.

    Considering the other complementary interests and interdependencies at stake between the two countries as also their individual aspirations of nation building through peace and stability, this clash would only result in a ‘lose-lose’ outcome. Notwithstanding the manner in which this issue pans out, Washington would have to walk a real diplomatic tightrope as its credibility vis-a-vis both Japan and China would be at stake, not to mention the other allies who would watch and draw their own conclusions.


    Commander Kamlesh Kumar Agnihotri is a Research Fellow with the China Cell of the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are solely his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Indian Government or of the National Maritime Foundation. The author can be reached at kkagnihotri@maritimeindia.org

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