Senkakus: China advancing into Pacific

Photo shows three of the Senkaku Islands on Sept. 6: from foreground, Minami-kojima, Kita-kojima and Uotsurijima.

The following is the second instalment of a series focusing on the confrontation between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.

Chinese military assertiveness has been growing increasingly conspicuous.

On July 25, a P-3C patrol plane of the Maritime Self-Defence Force spotted five Chinese military vessels, including a destroyer, sailing in waters near the Nansei Islands, about 100 kilometers northeast of Miyakojima island, southwest of Okinawa's main island.

It was later confirmed that the Chinese ships had entered the Pacific Ocean by way of Soya Strait between Hokkaido and Sakhalin Island after conducting joint live-ammunition firing exercises with the Russian Navy in the Sea of Japan off Vladivostok.

That meant the Chinese military vessels had, for the first time ever, circumnavigated the Japanese archipelago.

A day before the passage through Soya Strait, a Chinese early warning plane, Y8, had flown in the airspace between Okinawa's main island and Miyakojima island.

It was also the first time that a Chinese military plane had crossed over China's self-designated "First Island Chain" to intrude into Japan's airspace over the Pacific.

The First Island Chain is what the Chinese Liberation Army's Navy has designated in reference to a series of island groups spanning the southern part of Kyushu, the Nansei Islands, Taiwan and the Philippines.

What it refers to as the "Second Island Chain" comprises the line stretching from the Izu Islands and Ogasawara Islands, both administered by the Tokyo metropolitan government, over to Papua New Guinea, by way of Guam and Saipan.

At that time, Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera happened to be on an inspection tour of the Air Self-Defence Force's Kanoya Air Field, and he revealed the Chinese early warning plane's flight between the Okinawa main island and Miyakojima to reporters accompanying him. "From this point onward, China will most likely make advances into the Pacific Ocean," Onodera warned.

It was believed the Y8 plane may have engaged in an exercise over the Pacific in tandem with the five Chinese military vessels.

Joint action between military vessels and aircraft in a region far from mainland China would be impossible without a certain amount of preparation.

Pointing to this, a senior Defence Ministry official noted that, China's moves this time "must have taken not only the first island chain but also the second island chain into account."

This reasoning can be substantiated by remarks made by those with ties to the Chinese military. In July, Ou Chienping, chief of the military forces construction institute of the PLA's National Defence University emphasised in an online programme sponsored by the People's Daily that the Chinese Navy needs "the capability to cover great distances, as we have to get out into the Pacific by going beyond the First Island Chain."

The Nansei Islands, including the Senkaku Islands, and Okinawa Prefecture are situated along the route that Chinese troops will traverse on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

China's strategy

The Chinese Navy has adopted the so-called anti-access/area denial (A2AD) strategy. Waters from mainland China to its first island chain are defined as Chinese territorial waters, where missiles, high-performance fighter jets and drones are deployed to prevent an intrusion by the US military and to attempt to keep such an intrusion outside the second island chain. Thus the strategy is intended to prevent US troops from reaching mainland China in the event of a conflict.

According to Japan's Defence Ministry, A2AD has already entered an operational stage. On Sept. 8, an H-6 of China's air force, a large bomber capable of carrying nuclear missiles, flew across the first island chain for the first time. It is considered only a matter of time before China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, makes its way into the Pacific Ocean.

Regarding the motivation behind Chinese military's advance into the Pacific, Timothy Keating, then commander of the US Pacific Command, made an interesting remark during his testimony before Congress in 2008. He said a high-ranking Chinese military officer he met the previous year had proposed dividing control of the Pacific between the two countries, with the sea east of Hawaii controlled by the United States and the ocean west of Hawaii by China.

Some would laugh this off as a joke. But during a summit meeting with US President Barack Obama on June 7, Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly made a comment to the effect that the Pacific Ocean is a vast, open space with sufficient room for both the great powers of China and the United States.

China's former top leader Deng Xiaoping is said to have left behind a maxim in four Chinese characters that says, "Sharpen your claws while you wait for the right opportunity."

Having achieved economic development, China has launched a mission to build a new relationship between great powers with the United States. The Japan-China row over the Senkaku Islands is closely intertwined with the national strategy of China, which is also looking beyond Japan to keep a close eye on the United States.