HONG KONG (Reuters) - China’s naval and paramilitary ships are churning up the ocean around islands it disputes with Tokyo in what experts say is a strategy to overwhelm the numerically inferior Japanese forces that must sail out to detect and track the flotillas.
A daily stream of bulletins announce ship deployments into the East China Sea, naval combat exercises, the launch of new warships and commentaries calling for resolute defense of Chinese territory.
“The operational goal in the East China Sea is to wear out the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force and the Japan Coast Guard,” said James Holmes, a maritime strategy expert at the Newport, Rhode Island U.S. Naval War College.
It wasn’t until China became embroiled in the high stakes territorial dispute with Japan late last year that its secretive military opened up.
Now, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is routinely telegraphing its moves around the disputed islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
News of these missions also has domestic propaganda value for Beijing because it demonstrates the ruling Communist Party has the power and determination to defend what it insists has always been Chinese territory, political analysts said.
However, experts warn that the danger of these constant deployments from both sides into the contested area increases the danger of an accident or miscalculation that could lead to conflict.
In the most threatening incident so far, Tokyo last month said the fire control, or targeting, radar of Chinese warships near the islands “locked on” to a Japanese helicopter and destroyer in two separate incidents in late January.
Beijing denies this but U.S. military officers have backed up Japan’s account.
“We are in extremely dangerous territory here,” said Ross Babbage, a military analyst in Canberra and a former senior Australian defense official.
“We could have had Japan and China in a serious war.”
Some foreign and Japanese security experts say Japan’s powerful navy and coast guard still holds the upper hand in the disputed waters but that this could change if Beijing intensifies its patrols.
“I believe China for the time being focuses resources on the South China Sea, which is a higher priority for them now,” said Yoshihiko Yamada, a maritime policy expert and professor at Tokai University.
“But, if they shift more resources to the East China Sea, the coast guard alone would not be able to handle the situation.”
There were signs that tension remained high last week when Tokyo protested that China had deployed a series of buoys around the islands to collect intelligence about Japanese operations.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the buoys were in Chinese waters and positioned to collect weather information.
Beijing’s paramilitary agencies have been equally forthright since the standoff began with a stream of news and footage of their deployments.
Ships from these agencies including customs, maritime surveillance and fisheries are in the frontline of Beijing’s campaign to assert sovereignty over the disputed islands, which are believed to be rich in oil and gas.
A Chinese fisheries surveillance vessel entered Japan’s territorial waters near the islands for the second day running on February 24 in what was the 31st similar incursion since September, the Japanese coast guard said last week.
News bulletins in China are saturated with coverage of Chinese paramilitary ships jostling for position with their Japanese counterparts around the rocky islands.
There is evidence Japan’s coast guard is feeling the pressure.
It plans to form a new, 600-member unit equipped with 12 patrol ships that will be deployed exclusively on missions around the disputed islands.
And, it is boosting its budget to buy ships and aircraft by 23 percent to 32.5 billion yen ($348.15 million) for the year starting in April.
The coast guard also plans to add 119 personnel in the year starting next month. That would be the biggest staff increase in 32 years.
As tension mounted around the islands ahead of his return to office as prime minister of Japan in December, Shinzo Abe proposed converting retired navy vessels into coast guard patrol ships.
Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said on Tuesday that his ministry and the coast guard were discussing the idea.
Beijing has so far held its navy back from waters immediately surrounding the disputed territory but its warships are almost constantly patrolling nearby seas and other waterways around the Japanese archipelago, according to the PLA announcements.
In late January, the PLA said a naval fleet would conduct a naval exercise in the Western Pacific after “sailing through islands” off the Chinese coast, a clear reference to the Japanese archipelago. The navy had conducted seven similar exercises last year, it said.
In a series of subsequent bulletins, the PLA said three of its most modern warships, the missile destroyer Qingdao and the missile frigates Yantai and Yancheng would make up the fleet which would conduct training in the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea in an 18-day deployment.
The U.S. navy has also monitored the sharply increased tempo of Chinese naval and paramilitary operations near Japan.
In an unusually blunt public assessment, a senior American naval intelligence officer, Captain James Fanell, told a seminar in San Diego on January 31 that the PLA navy had last year sent seven surface action groups into the Philippines Sea south of Japan.
It had also deployed the biggest number of submarines in its history into this area, he said.
It was unclear if Fanell was referring to the same seven deployments the PLA disclosed last month.
“Make no mistake, the PLA navy is focused on war at sea and about sinking an opposing fleet,” Fanell said.
And, the U.S. officer said, China’s maritime surveillance agency, a civil proxy for the PLA, had become “a full-time maritime sovereignty harassment organization” with the goal of enforcing territorial claims.
The frequency of deployments appears set to continue with the PLA announcing on February 27 it would conduct 40 military exercises this year with an increased emphasis on “core security-related interests”.
Senior Chinese officials have strongly implied that Japan’s claim over the islands is an attack on one of China’s core interests, an important distinction to Beijing in defining its non-negotiable national priorities.
In a speech to the politburo in late January, Chinese party leader Xi Jinping referred to the pain of “wartime atrocities”, an apparent reference to Japan’s bloody invasion and occupation of China last century, according to a report of his remarks carried by the official Xinhua news agency.
“We will stick to the road of peaceful development but will never give up our legitimate rights and will never sacrifice our national core interests,” he was reported to have said.
And, Beijing continues to boost its military firepower. Chinese shipyards last week delivered a new, stealth frigate to the navy, the official PLA Daily newspaper reported.
The radar evading type-056 frigate would be introduced in big numbers as the first step in a systematic upgrade of navy hardware, the paper said.
Despite the intense military and diplomatic pressure, the Japanese government shows no sign of wilting.
“We simply cannot tolerate any challenge now and in the future,” Prime Minister Abe said recently in Washington.
“No nation should make any miscalculation or underestimate the firmness of our resolve.”
Still, military analysts said Japanese forces must continue to match China’s patrols and exercises.
In a paper prepared for an Australian military think tank last year, an influential Japanese military strategist, retired Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, said Chinese naval forces sailing around the Japanese islands “will surely meet intensive surveillance and continuous tracking” from Japanese forces and its U.S. allies.
Some military analysts suggest Beijing’s continuous deployments around the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are also part of a wider policy of enhancing its claims over a number of disputed territories in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
“If Beijing starts policing territory it claims as its own, and if rival claimants can’t push back effectively, it will start looking like the rightful sovereign over that territory,” said Holmes.
However, Holmes added that Japan poses a much stiffer challenge for Beijing than smaller nations like the Philippines which also has overlapping territorial claims with China.
While smaller in raw numbers than the PLA navy, the highly trained Japanese navy is generally regarded as the most powerful in Asia with state-of-the art ships, submarines and aircraft. And, it has a security alliance with the United States that obliges Washington to intervene if Japan is attacked.
Other military experts suggest Beijing has decided to intensify its operations against Japan, a nation whose wartime aggression is remembered across Asia, because confrontations with smaller neighbors in recent years had led to a region-wide diplomatic backlash.
“The Senkaku/Diaoyu hoopla of late is triggered by China’s desire to extricate itself from total regional isolation caused by China’s expansive territorial claims against virtually all of its maritime neighbors,” said Yu Maochun, an expert on the PLA at the Annapolis, Maryland United States Naval Academy. ($1 = 93.3500 Japanese yen)
Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo. Editing by Dean Yates