China’s land reclamation at the Spratly Islands reveals its maritime ambitions
The January 7 issue of Bloomberg Global Finance ran an article entitled “American President Donald Trump Signs Executive Order Banning Chinese Apps: Business Transactions in Turmoil” on the top of its front page. I will excerpt the first part of this article here:
Trump signed an executive order on January 5 banning transactions with eight Chinese apps including Alipay, a digital payment platform from the Ant Group. This is a new initiative by the Trump administration utilizing its national security authority to target Chinese IT companies. They say this is because these platforms could threaten American national security. If the executive order comes into effect, it could cause major turmoil in international transaction systems spanning multiple countries.Trump is maintaining a confrontational attitude against China until the end of his presidency.
Until President Barack Obama, the United States and other liberal democratic nations acted according to their thinking that economic affluence would eventually cause China to democratize, transforming it into another free, democratic nation. One of China’s major appealing features is its huge population of 1.4 billion people that provides labor at low wages and purchasing power. These countries have continually given economic aid to China based on their expectations. However, not only has China not democratized, but the Communist Party of China (CPC) has increasingly enhanced its one-party rule, and China has turned into a military superpower.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has fought with the countries in its surrounding area throughout its history. After the PRC was founded in October 1949, it invaded East Turkestan and established the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The PRC invaded and annexed Tibet in 1950. It fought with India in the Sino-Indian Border Conflict of 1962 and has effective control over Aksai Chin, which it gained through that conflict (this area covers 37,244 square kilometers in the Kashmir region). However, India still claims Aksai Chin as part of its territory. The Cultural Revolution took place from 1966 to 1976. The CPC carried out a huge purge of Mongolians and killed hundreds of thousands of people in the “Inner Mongolia People’s Revolution Party purge incident.” Members of the Han ethnic group have been continually sent to Inner Mongolia, and today they comprise 80% of the population in that autonomous region. In 1969, China engaged in a military conflict with the Soviet Union over rights to Damansky Island (0.74 square kilometers), a sandbar in the Ussuri River that is a tributary of the Amur River. The tense situation was on the brink of developing into a war. Both sides fought while claiming they had control of the island before agreeing to return it to China. After Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, Deng Xiaoping started the Sino-Vietnamese War (a punitive military movement) to punish Vietnam. Many people died before the Chinese army withdrew.
After determining borders by fighting with all of its land neighbors in this fashion, China then turned its eyes to maritime hegemony. It began reclaiming reefs and building military bases in the Spratly Islands in the 2010s, and claims the 12 nautical miles around the bases as territorial waters. Japan and other countries do not recognize this, however. Having control of the Spratly Islands is the equivalent of having control over sea lanes – a life-and-death issue to Japan, whose economy depends on foreign trade. In 2008, Commander Timothy J. Keating of the U.S. Pacific Command testified that he met with high officials in the Chinese navy during a visit to China in 2007, and received a proposal to divide and manage the Pacific Ocean (with the U.S. in charge of the area east of Hawaii and China in charge of the area west of it). Perhaps this was partially in jest, but it indicates China’s powerful maritime ambitions. And if China does realize its desires, Japan will end up within China’s sphere of influence.
Japan must clearly demonstrate its control of the Senkaku Islands by building permanent facilities and other structures
2049 will be the 100th anniversary of the PRC, and President Xi Jinping is working for China to achieve global hegemony before that year. That is why he abolished the presidential term limit of two terms (five years each) that had been maintained by past presidents like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Xi is striving to make China into his own personal empire and himself into its emperor. I think China will certainly come into conflict with the U.S., which has been the ruler of the world since the end of the Cold War. However, these two countries have vastly different population sizes – China has 1.4 billion people while the U.S. has 300 million – and it is fully possible that China might surpass the U.S. in terms of economic and military strength during the next 10 to 15 years.
Japan, and the Senkaku Islands, stand in the way of China’s expansion into the Pacific Ocean. I think China’s real intention is to fulfill its desperate desire to gain control of the Senkaku Islands so it can freely come and go into the Pacific. Takeshima is clearly part of Japan’s historical territory, yet South Korea drew the “Syngman Rhee Line” claiming Takeshima as its territory right before Japan’s territory was settled when the Treaty of San Francisco came into effect in April 1952. This was inspired by the “MacArthur Line” that temporarily established the extent of Japan’s territory until that point. The Dokdo Volunteer Garrison, a paramilitary group, landed on the uninhabited island in April 1953. They were permanently stationed there and have effectively controlled the island since. History shows that the Senkaku Islands are part of Japanese territory; a bonito flake factory and other facilities were built during the Meiji period, and 248 people lived there in its heyday. However, once the existence of seafloor resources near the islands was made clear, China has disregarded these historical facts and claimed rights to the Senkaku Islands since 1971.
It is possible, for instance, that Chinese people might land on the currently uninhabited Uotsuri Island on the pretense of taking refuge from a storm or the like. They might stay there, leading to China’s effective control of the islands, just like what happened with Takeshima. Japan must strengthen its practical control of the Senkaku Islands to prevent this. A private-sector political group built a lighthouse on Uotsuri that was donated to the national government in 2005. The Japan Coast Guard currently manages the lighthouse, but we must construct other facilities out of careful consideration for what China might do. I think Japan should build more permanent structures such as port facilities. We should also clearly indicate that Japan has effective control and make it possible to permanently station members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) there if at all possible.
Japan must take power-based measures against pressure from the increasingly strong CCG
Recently, China Coast Guard (CCG) ships are more active around the Senkaku Islands. Last year they trespassed into the contiguous zone near the Senkaku Islands on 100 consecutive days. They also remained in Japan’s territorial waters for nearly 60 hours in October. Of course, civilian vessels and even battleships are allowed “innocent passage” through the territorial waters of another country, but this certainly does not apply to the actions of CPC ships that roam around Japan’s waters for long periods of time and track Japanese fishing boats. International law says a country can demand that ships stop their actions and leave territorial waters in cases such as this. Japan Coast Guard patrol boats in those areas have actually demanded that Chinese ships withdraw, and rigorous protests have been lodged to the Chinese government through diplomatic channels. According to international law, one can only attack a foreign battleship that invades territorial waters if that ship carries out a military attack. If a CCG ship sprays water or interferes, a patrol boat could respond in kind, but it cannot go beyond that.
Japan nationalized three of Senkaku Islands in 2012. Since then, the Coast Guard is approaching the limits of how it can respond to the territorial incursions by CCG ships, which have become normalized. In 2016, hundreds of Chinese fishing boats protected by CCG vessels invaded Japan’s marine territory, likely because the Chinese government incited them to do so. These large CCG vessels are actually reconstructed warships, and are more fully equipped than patrol boats. The CCG became even more military-like when it was incorporated into the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force in July 2018. Just like how Takeshima was taken away, the CCG could use its strength to effectively gain control of the Senkaku Islands at any point if the Chinese government told them to. The world functions, and peace is insured, according to a balance of power. No matter how often Japan tells these ships to go away or protests to China, there is no way for us to stand against repeated incursions into our territorial seas if discussions are not backed by military power. The common understanding of the world shows the illogical nature of the thinking that we can achieve peace just by wishing for it. If we do not take necessary military measures against China’s powerful pressure at the Senkaku Islands – such as permanently stationing the JSDF there – these islands will likely become Chinese territory at some point in the future.
We must fully protect marine resources in Japan’s seas
Some people say we should give Takeshima to South Korea, and question why we cannot simply hand over uninhabited islands such as Senkaku to China. However, history demonstrates that allowing even small territorial violations leads to more territory being snatched away. Okinotori and Minamitori Islands show us that – because even small, uninhabited islands are parts of our territory – they expand Japan’s exclusive economic zone and give exclusive rights to the marine and mineral resources in these areas. Seafloor resources are of particular importance. The potential is growing that we can use our technical power to harvest from the sea many of the resources that we currently have to import, such as oil, rare metals, and methane hydrate (a type of fossil fuel). If a small portion of our territory is stolen, we lose exclusive rights to the resources in that region. Japanese citizens and National Diet members alike lack a sufficient understanding of this risk.
Japan is an island nation surrounded by ocean, not a continental state that shares land borders with other countries. I think we are much too tolerant of violations into our territorial waters, and that other countries would be more concerned by these. Many wars throughout history have been started by territory-related dissatisfactions and ambitions. War does not break out if the two countries have equal military strength, but one country will likely invade to resolve territorial issues if it recognizes that it has superior military power. China certainly thinks this way, too. The Air Self-Defense Force scrambles in response to airspace incursions, which happened 141 times in 2004 compared to 947 times in 2019 (a number that is seven times larger). A great percentage of these scrambles were against Chinese air force fighter planes. We are somehow handling things in the sky, but I am uneasy about Japan’s defense of its territorial waters in the Senkaku Islands area. We must maintain the Coast Guard framework to prevent reckless escalation, and we must also maintain a balance of power by devoting funds to safeguarding the islands so China cannot pressure Japan any further. In addition, I think the media should report in a way that encourages the public to support enhanced defense of the Senkaku Islands, which is in line with international sensibilities. People must follow the laws of a country when they are within its dominion. In the open ocean, they must abide by the laws of the country where the ship is registered. In the air, they must follow the laws of the country that owns the aircraft.
A country’s GDP tends to be proportionate to its population. Due to its population of 1.4 billion people, I believe that China – which is no longer the poor country it used to be – will eventually surpass the American GDP. In addition to the one-party CPC rule, China is seeming more and more like a dictatorship ruled by Xi after he abolished the presidential term limit. The top leader can concentrate and use all accumulated assets. The National Defense Mobilization Law passed in 2010 obligates all citizens, except for children and the elderly, to defend China in the event of an emergency. This law also applies to Chinese people in other countries, who must follow orders from Beijing while living or traveling abroad. For example, roughly 9.5 million Chinese people vacationed in Japan in 2019. If an emergency occurred, they might be ordered by their government to occupy important facilities in Japan. Is it acceptable for Japan to allow limitless numbers of these potential guerillas into our country? I think Japanese people lack a sufficient sense of wariness. They should have be more cognizant of national defense, and Japan should augment its military strength, to maintain peace through a balance of power, rather than the peace that comes from ruling other countries or being ruled by them. That is how we must protect our nation.
January 18 (Monday), 6:00 p.m.