In an attempt to wear down Japanese resistance in disputed East China Sea, China has been ramping up civilian and military presence in the airspace and waters around a rocky uninhabited group of islands, which are under Japanese administration.
The islands are also known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China, are under Japanese administration but claimed by both countries.
As part of its strategy, China has sent military planes on hundreds of sorties in the area, forcing the Japan Self-Defence Forces to scramble its fighter jets from dawn till dusk, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported.
Observers told the SCMP that the tactic is draining Japanese personnel and equipment but also comes at a big risk for China.
From 2013 to 2018, an average of 720 Chinese coastguard vessels ventured into the waters and in 2020, 1,157 of the Chinese ships went into the contiguous zone of the islands, up more than 5 per cent from last year.
According to SCMP, the Japanese Coast Guard started reporting the number of Chinese coastguard vessels near the Senkakus in 2008.
In the early years, the Chinese sent vessels a few times. And in 2020, 1,157 of the Chinese ships went in the contiguous zone of the islands, up more than five per cent from last year and almost triple the number from 2012.
Tensions have also been on the rise in the sky. The Japanese Ministry of Defence said in the year to March, Japanese fighter jets responded to 638 incursions by Chinese warplanes, nearly all of which were near the islands.
The total was up from 500 from the previous year and was the second-highest annual number since 1958.
The frequent Chinese sorties force the Japan Air Self-Defence Force to fly above the East China Sea from sunrise to sunset, Kyodo News reported citing government sources.
The two countries have agreed to restart talks on the island but there is a great deal of mistrust to overcome.
Japanese State Minister of Defence Yasuhide Nakayama voiced those concerns in early December when he said China’s growing maritime activities in the waters surrounding Japan were a threat.
He also called Beijing’s movements an attempt to “unilaterally” change the status quo in the East China Sea. “Every single day, the Chinese ships, the coastguard vessels try to enter our territorial waters,” Nakayama said.
Amid all this, the US, Japan and France plan to hold their first joint military drills on one of Japan’s uninhabited outlying islands in May.
The exercise is nominal to practise disaster relief efforts but could also form the basis for coordinated defence against attack, according to Japan’s Sankei newspaper.
Derek Grossman, a security specialist from the Rand Corporation, said pressure from Chinese warplanes has severely strained the Japan Air Self-Defence Force’s ability to sustain normal operations.
“[It] has suffered in terms of pilot fatigue as well as the cost of maintenance on aircraft … [and] the routinisation of intercepts makes it more difficult for the [air self-defence force] to determine whether this time is different. That is precisely the uncertain mindset Beijing wants potential adversaries to have prior to actual armed conflict,” Grossman said.
Timothy Heath, also from the Rand Corporation, said China’s strategy for the Senkakus depended on “wearing down” Japan’s resistance over time so that eventually Tokyo acquiesced without fighting.
And a number of factors were in China’s favour.
“First, the huge amount of resources available to the Chinese coastguard and People’s Liberation Army Navy provides an important material advantage. Japan cannot match China plane for plane and ship for ship. Tokyo will become exhausted if it tries to do so,” Heath said.
“Also, China is highly motivated to sustain these intrusions, due to the value for its security and the political benefits for Chinese audiences that the intrusions offer of humiliating Japan,” Heath added.
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