With Obama headed to Asia, China’s suspiciously large Coast Guard vessels sure look a lot like a navy.
Much of the world’s attention has been focused on the test of wills between Beijing and Washington in the South China Sea, where China has been asserting territorial claims by building a network of artificial islands and sending out ships to patrol them. But a thousand-odd miles to the north, in the East China Sea, tension is quietly and steadily mounting into an even potentially more dangerous cocktail of disputed islands, feverish nationalism, and well-armed adversaries.
China has begun sailing bigger ships — old navy vessels nominally now serving as Coast Guard ones — near islands that Beijing and Tokyo both claim, as well as carrying out provocative flights with advanced jets overhead. Those aggressive tactics have alarmed Japan and raised the risk of a potentially violent incident between the two — and unlike in the South China Sea, where the United States has been vague about its readiness to help the Philippines in a dispute with Beijing, Washington has made clear it will honor its treaty obligations to come to Japan’s rescue.
The spat will be high on the agenda when President Barack Obama visits Tokyo this week, and Japan will be looking for the United States to repeat its reassurances that Washington stands by its mutual defense treaty commitments.
China’s bold tactics at sea, its growing military punch, and the nationalist rhetoric surrounding the feud in both countries arguably pose a more dangerous threat than the simmering disputes in the South China Sea. In Southeast Asia, Beijing is a heavyweight that wields overwhelming military and economic power compared with its smaller neighbors like the Philippines and Vietnam.
But in the East China Sea standoff, Japan, after decades of indifference and official pacifism, is flexing its military muscles and showing a determination to counter Beijing’s attempts to assert its territorial claims. Tokyo is investing record levels in its military, especially the navy, building up amphibious forces, bolstering missile defenses, buying stealthy F-35 fighter jets, and increasingly taking part in big military exercises with the United States and other countries. Next month, Japanese forces will join ships from the U.S. and Indian navies in a drill in the East China Sea.
Retired Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who stepped down last year as chief of the U.S. Navy, said that he sees the situation in the East China Sea as potentially more dangerous than the quarrels playing out in the South China Sea.
“In my opinion, I would view the likelihood of any kind of combat in the South China Sea as low. The East China Sea is a little higher than low, and that has more of a history than the South China Sea,” he told Foreign Policy.
After a series of tense confrontations four years ago, Greenert encouraged commanders in Tokyo and Beijing to adopt rules and procedures for encounters at sea or in the air to avoid an unintended stumble into war.
When ships or planes met up in contested areas in the East China Sea, there had been “a lot of cursing and threats” by pilots and ship commanders, he said. Now there is a more disciplined, professional approach under the new set of rules. “Both Japan and China have realized there needs to be a proportional set of protocols,” the admiral said.
The two countries have feuded over ownership of the eight uninhabited islands, which the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands, off and on for more than a century. Japan controls the islands, and China claims them. But the dispute turned into a full-fledged crisis in 2012, when Tokyo’s governor vowed to use public money to buy the islands from a Japanese private owner, setting off outrage in China and hostile encounters at sea.
Since then, it has turned into a tense cat-and-mouse game, with China flying fighter jets over the area and sending frequent Coast Guard patrols into the contested waters around the islands, while Japan has responded with its own Coast Guard cruises, record levels of fighter jet sorties, and new radar stations to keep an eye on Chinese activity.
While the number of Chinese ships operating near the islands has remained the same over the past three years, the size of the vessels has mushroomed. In 2014, the Chinese Coast Guard ships deployed to the Senkakus displaced an average of roughly 2,200 tons, according to numbers released by Beijing. By 2015, the average swelled to more than 3,200 tons.
Some of the large vessels are former naval warships, such as the Haijing 31239, which is outfitted with 37 mm guns. And China also is building formidable Coast Guard vessels with reinforced hulls and powerful weapons, some of which are larger than American naval destroyers.
The Chinese fleet includes two “mega-cutters,” the largest coast guard vessels in the world, which have a 76 mm cannon on the bow, two machine guns, and a hangar and landing pad for helicopters. The 12,000-ton ships are significantly larger than most U.S. naval vessels and three times the size of a standard 4,000-ton U.S. Coast Guard cutter.
“Raw size matters, tonnage matters, when ships are up along side each other,” said Gregory Poling, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Japan is worried that sooner or later they will get in a position that the Japanese Coast Guard can’t handle an incident by itself,” Poling told FP.
China’s faux “white hulls” amount to a symbolic shot across the bow of Japanese forces, said Jeffrey Hornung, a fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
“Having Chinese naval vessels posing as Coast Guard vessels, along with Coast Guard vessels equipped with armaments, signal that China is willing to engage Japan aggressively,” he said.
In a scenario where it was overwhelmed by larger Chinese ships, the Japanese Coast Guard would face a difficult decision whether to call for help from Japan’s navy, known as the Maritime Self-Defense Force. Turning to Japan’s naval forces would represent an escalation in Beijing’s eyes and likely prompt the deployment of Chinese naval ships that are often on the horizon near where their Coast Guard ships are operating.
“The maritime balance of power, measured in terms of naval and civilian maritime law enforcement capabilities, is shifting in China’s favor,” said Toshi Yoshihara, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. “The question is whether Japan can keep up with the competition in material terms.”
And if Japan does counter with warships of its own, that could lead to a cycle of escalation that could give Beijing a propaganda coup.
“China is probing, in part, to provoke a Japanese overreaction,” Yoshihara said. “Such an overreaction would allow China to depict Japan as the aggressor and would in turn give Beijing some diplomatic cover to counter-escalate to achieve its operational aims in the East China Sea.”
In an apparent response to China’s tactics, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, warned in January that a new policy would allow the country’s naval forces to carry out a “maritime policing operation” if foreign warships enter Japanese territorial waters for a purpose other than a simple transit of the area. But it was unclear if he was referring to repurposed Chinese naval vessels.
The protocols agreed between China’s military and other navies do not apply to Coast Guard vessels, and U.S. Navy Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the Pacific Fleet, has called for extending the rules to Coast Guard ships to prevent an incident from spiraling out of control.
Some U.S. officials play down the potential risks of East China Sea feud, saying neither side is seeking a war and that the atmosphere has improved since 2012, when encounters between ships turned hostile with water cannons fired and dangerous maneuvers.
Most of the bad blood between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkakus is due to nationalism and dueling territorial claims. But, much like the sovereignty-fueled spats in the South China Sea, the waters around the Senkakus do hold big reserves of natural gas that add extra fuel to the boiling dispute.
In 2008, Japan and China reached a deal to avoid either country unilaterally drilling for gas in the area until clear borders could be drawn up. Nevertheless, Chinese drilling rigs have continued to proliferate, raising concerns among Japanese security specialists and sparking the ire of Japanese lawmakers.
Energy exploitation in the East China Sea is at present in its infancy — China National Offshore Oil Corporation gets just a minuscule fraction of its natural gas, and a few thousand barrels of oil, from its operations there. But the area holds great promise, accounting for about 13 percent of the company’s global gas reserves.
And gas may not be the only attraction: Experts say Japanese officials suspect China has used the oil installations as a way of monitoring Japanese ships in the area and may have installed radar on the rigs that could be justified for commercial purposes.
The disputes over drilling rigs are driving Tokyo to consider taking a page from the Philippines’s playbook. A lawmaker in the ruling party proposed this spring that Japan take China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to seek a ruling on what it calls illegal offshore drilling by Beijing, much as Manila did in 2013 to protest Chinese incursions in Philippine waters. Chinese officials, who’ve spent years lambasting the Philippines arbitration case, quickly warned Japan against such a step.
The legal wrangling, paired with each country’s rapid military buildup, is precisely what makes any conflict in the East China Sea a potentially bigger flash point than the headline-grabbing skirmishes in the South China Sea.
“We’re talking about two militaries armed with advanced, lethal weaponry,” Yoshihara said. “China won’t be able to run over Japan as it might against the weaker powers in the South China Sea.”
Photo credit: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images