Tag Archives: PRC

Communist China’s Approach to Force: 1962 Lessons for the Senkaku Islands?

By Alex Calvo

Given the continued tensions in the East and South China Seas, and the constant speculation on whether Beijing may choose to escalate, it can be useful to have a look at how the PRC has traditionally resorted to force, and in particular the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

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Professor Brahma Chellaney wrote an interesting summary of Communist China’s approach to war, based on that conflict, which saw the Chinese Army penetrate deeply into India for 32 days, after which “Beijing announced a unilateral ceasefire, and the war ended as abruptly as it had begun. Ten days later, the Chinese began withdrawing from the areas they had penetrated on India’s eastern flank, between Bhutan and Burma, but they kept their territorial gains in the West—part of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. India had suffered a humiliating rout, and China’s international stature had grown substantially”. The six principles displayed were:

  • Surprise. As already advised by Sun Tzu, who wrote that all warfare was “based on deception”.

  • Concentration, “hitting as fast and as hard as possible”.

  • First Strike.

  • Waiting, and choosing the right moment.

  • Camouflaging offence as defence, engaging in “defensive counterattacks”.

  • Daring. A tendency to gamble and take risks.

When it comes to the Senkaku Islands, a question is whether these principles may be employed, in the form of an airborne or seaborne landing of troops or a mixed force of military personnel and “activists”, bypassing the Coastguard units shielding them and taking advantage of the lack of land forces.

Aerial view of the Senkaku Islands
Aerial view of the Senkaku Islands

Concerning surprise, we can see a clear distinction between 1962 and this scenario in terms of strategic surprise. Beijing is announcing every day that she wants the Senkaku, and not making any effort at all to pretend that she is only ready to resort to non-violent means. No ambiguity here, therefore no strategic surprise is being sought. At the tactical level, on the other hand, there is no surprise either in the constant harassment at the hands of paramilitary assets or “civilian” expeditions, but this could be a cover behind which to prepare a landing by military or other government personnel. It is here that surprise may lie, since Beijing may try to take advantage of the presumption that it is only unarmed activists who try to land, inserting an armed force, maybe by air.

With regard to concentration, the nature of the islands means that this principle would not be applicable in exactly the same sense as it was in 1962. Rather than hitting “as fast and as hard as possible”, as Chellaney explains China did against India, the goal would be still be to do it as swiftly as possible but not as hard as possible, rather the contrary, since the idea would be to avoid a clash with the Japanese Coast Guard or other government agencies. Beijing’s goal would be to force Tokyo to take the always difficult decision in a democracy to fire the first shot.

When it comes to striking first, again we have to note an essential difference. Beijing would still be interested in surprise, as already noted, that is she would try to make the first move (and by definition she would, since the islands are already in Japanese hands) but not to shoot first. This would be a major difference with 1962 or with the 1979 “lesson” against Vietnam.

The idea that an attack should be launched at the right time, with a view to a favourable worldwide state of affairs, remains as relevant as ever. This is linked to one of Beijing’s imperatives, preventing the US from coming to Japan’s aid. It would also involve other, regional, powers however. China has a need to keep an eye on Russia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and India, among others. It must be said, concerning this, that while it is true that Beijing has usually been smart to launch its limited offensives at the right time (this includes the seizure of the Paracel Islands, occupation of Johnson Reef, and capture of Mischief Reef), when it comes to Japan she miscalculated in 2010. Beijing imposed an embargo on rare earths exports in reaction to the arrest of a trawler’s skipper, not only failing to secure any objective beyond his release but unleashing a major effort to implement alternative technologies, recycle, seek new suppliers, and even explore seabed deposits. The result is that Japan has significantly cut down her dependence on Chinese rare earths.

Japanese air patrol over the Senkaku Islands
Japanese air patrol over the Senkaku Islands

The tendency to carry out “defensive counterattacks” seems to be a constant in Chinese behaviour, which Chellaney reminds his readers had already been noted by the Pentagon in its 2010 report on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” to Congress. This report lists a number of instances where Beijing chose to seize the initiative, while framing her actions in a “response” narrative. In a way this is already been happening in the Senkaku Islands, since after each incident Beijing not only rejects Japanese protests but actually issues her own, saying that they are part of her territory and that therefore it is Japanese units which are trespassing. The text also points out how Chinese doctrine calls for waiting for the enemy to strike first, while defining that first strike in political, not necessarily military, terms. Thus it is fine to be the first to resort to force in reaction to a political offensive. The report quotes from “the authoritative work, Science of Military Strategy,” to explain that “Striking only after the enemy has struck does not mean waiting for the enemy’s strike passively.… It doesn’t mean to give up the ‘advantageous chances’ in campaign or tactical operations, for the ‘first shot’ on the plane of politics must be differentiated from the ‘first shot’ on that of tactics… if any country or organization violates the other country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the other side will have the right to ‘fire the first shot’ on the plane of tactics.'”

Would this doctrine be compatible with a sneak landing on the Senkaku Islands? It could fit with it if we expanded it to comprise three, as opposed to two planes. The first one would still be the political, with Beijing claiming (as she does) that the islands are hers and that therefore the Japanese are invaders, a position made much easier to sustain by Tokyo’s reluctance to develop the islands, thus contradicting her claims that not only do they belong to the country but that there is no territorial dispute. The second one, where Beijing would be taking the initiative, would be the “tactical-cold” one, that is the employment of force (in the sense of deploying military or paramilitary personnel in violation of Japan’s borders but without inflicting casualties). Finally, the third would be the “tactical-hot,” that is the actual employment of weapons with live fire, where China would rather have Japan be the first to shoot, in the knowledge that it is difficult for democracies to take such decisions and thus in the hope that Tokyo would refrain from doing it or that, if she did, this could be used to Beijing’s advantage on the propaganda and diplomacy fronts.

Finally, with regard to China’s tendency to gamble and take risks, Chellaney notes that this could be furthered by her “second-strike nuclear capability and unprecedented economic and conventional military strength.” In addition to these two powerful factors, we could perhaps mention two additional ones, whose impact is less clear cut but which may nevertheless have some influence: a possible economic crisis and popular demand for the seizing of the Islands. Concerning a crisis, a growing number of voices are alerting about the possibility that the country’s uninterrupted economic growth may sooner or later be brought to a halt. Whether that would prompt a more cautious foreign policy or on the contrary whet Beijing’s appetite for adventures is open to debate. With regard to her domestic public opinion, Beijing is playing a dangerous game by pushing so hard for the Senkaku Islands and thus risking becoming a prisoner of her own narrative. This brings to mind Hugh Bicheno’s comment, in his unofficial history of the Falklands War, that territorial conflicts may be useful to “distract the masses,” but that this “creates an issue others will exploit to question the Nationalist credentials of whoever is refraining from recovering the lost lands.”

We can thus conclude that Communist China’s traditional approach to force, as exemplified by the 1962 War, means a clear danger that Beijing will try to seize the Senkaku Islands by inserting forces and daring Tokyo to be the first to open fire.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.

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(Updated 9/18) Keeping up with the Senkakus: China Establishing a New Reality on the Ground…er, Sea

UPDATE: 9/18:

Japan’s Coast Guard has its hands full: Latest reports indicate up to 11 Chinese maritime surveillance ships have entered the Senkakus/Diaoyus’ Continguous Zone while a pair of fishermen swam ashore one of the islands before departing.

UPDATE: 9/17:

In addition to the anti-Japanese protests and violence which has flared throughout China this weekend, Chinese state media has indicated the possibility of further reaction to the nationalization of the Senkakus/Diaoyus to come later this week.  Chinese state radio said Monday that “1,000” fishing vessels are headed to the waters near the islands, as a fishing ban comes to an end.  Of note, the report quoted a Chinese source who said the vessels’ activities would be monitored by a “marine observation satellite.”  It is unclear whether this is an attempt to say the six vessels still believed in the vicinity of the islands will attempt to avoid a confrontation with the Japanese Coast Guard on station, or whether it just indicates China will be watching the situation very closely.  Meanwhile, Hong Kong reports that the ship Kai Fung 2, which earlier helped keep the islands in the spotlight, will attempt a return voyage this week as well.

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Hi, Hai Jian!

In the past week, while American attention has largely been diverted, China appears to have taken a number of steps to change the reality of the situation in the Senkakus/Diaoyus (hereafter referred to as Senkakus for brevity’s sake) in a coordinated diplomatic, media, legal, and physical push.

 

With the maelstrom of news emanating from the Muslim world, U.S. media coverage of other, possibly more consequential events inevitably slackened.  Fortunately our international and domestic partners have carried the ball a bit with regards to the disputed islands claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan.  While we noted the reports on Tuesday of two Chinese ships – the Hai Jian 46 and Hai Jian 49 – dispatched to and arriving outside the islands’ Territorial Waters (TW), the number that arrived eventually totaled six, twice as many ever previously sent by China at one time.  A good account of the stand-off, on pause for now, can be found at The Asahi Shimbun.  Although the Chinese vessels have all left the islands’ TW, they remain in the direct vicinity.

 

The Senkakus are the same five islands, under administrative control of Japan (and populated only by goats), at the center of Japanese Coast Guard clashes with Chinese fishermen and most recently protestors from all claimants.  The Atlantic Council of Canada has a good article on the history of the conflict, but the immediate cause of the Chinese flotilla was the purchase of three of the islands by Japan’s national government (another was already government-owned, and the last owned by another private owner).  The decision to go forward with the purchase was forced by Tokyo’s nationalist metropolitan government, which also attempted to buy the islands but would have furthered their use as a provocative cause célèbre – whereas the central government has mostly sought to play down tensions between the two economic partners.

 

However, with the lead-time given by advance warnings of the sale date on Sept. 11th, China had time to prepare a coordinated response.  As our counterparts @Galrahn and @cdrsalamander noted, this response not only involved the vessels themselves (which, significantly or not are from State Oceanic Administration while previous vessels were from the Ministry of Agriculture) but also articles backing the move ready to run in China’s state media.  Further, these actions appear timed to coincide with the PRC’s announcement of baselines demarcating their claims and the start of weather forecasts for the area.

 

Peaceful…but effective?

Although unprecedented for this particular conflict, China appears to be following a course it charted earlier this summer in the South China Sea, where it has so far successfully established a new reality on the ground with the Philippines-claimed and previously administered Scarborough/Pantang Shoal.  The Philippines Coast Guard pulled back its vessels on June 16th due to bad weather and has yet to return, effectively ceding control to the Chinese civilian maritime agencies, who have maintained a presence in the area and attempted to physically impede any non-Chinese vessels.

 

Back in the East China Sea, as the Christian Science Monitor noted, China likely had to take some action to appease nationalist sentiment at home in reaction to Japan’s moves.  But the paper also said that the movement of the vessels back out of the islands’ TW can be taken as a sign of China’s unwillingness to take things too far.  Here’s hoping they’re right – and that fears of further turmoil before the country’s leadership transition will serve as a break.  But with precedence already established in the South China Sea, and the vessels still loitering in the area, many signs point to the potential for future confrontation – and it may begin as early as next week. 

 

On Friday Xinhua said the vessels will start “patrol and law enforcement around the Diaoyu Islandswhile the catalyst for conflict could begin Sunday, when China’s self-imposed three-and-a-half-month fishing ban in waters near the Senkakus ends (although a typhoon to the east of the islands may further complicate the situation (h/t Galrahn)).  A Bureau of Fisheries official stated: “A large number of fishing boats will leave their ports…We will resolutely protect China’s sovereignty and the safety of fishers and step up controls in marine areas that include the Diaoyu Islands.”  Adding to the fun, Taiwan has also sent two Coast Guard vessels to protect any of its own fishermen brave enough to wade into the waters.

 

Not a pretty kitty. MEOW: Mutual Economic Obliteration Worldwide

From the perspective of the U.S., hoping to de-escalate any conflict between two of its most important trading partners and avoid being dragged in to an armed conflict, it’s clear we need better mechanisms with the PRC in case of emergency.  The threat of MEOW (mutual economic obliteration worldwide) is not enough.  It’s vital to separate the sides in the early stages to prevent a confrontation going past a point of no return – so we need to know who to call, and that they’ll have actual authority to call vessels back.  That is of course easier said than done with a country whose future president can drop of the face of the Earth for over a week at a time.  What the U.S. can work on, however, is building “habits of trust and cooperation,” through increasing partnership opportunities with China – a topic I will return to shortly.

 

If the long-term solution has to be through international diplomacy, China, by demarcating its claims to the specific rocks and islands around the Senkakus – a step experts have called the Chinese to take in the South China Sea – might this week actually have made progress of a sort.  But next week might not be as useful.

 

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

 

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

A Voyage of Unintended Discovery (Update 8/16)

 

Kai Fung No. 2 breaks through a Japanese coast guard blocking action

Photos: AP

Update 8/16:

The activists, crew, and media are all in custody, as Japan prepares to deport them. This action forestalls the sort of diplomatic crossfire the central government faced from nationalists at home and the Chinese government when it briefly held for trial a Chinese fisherman who rammed a coast guard vessel in 2010, before letting him go. Meanwhile, we have some great photos from the incident.

 

Crew of Kai Fung land and try to raise PRC and Taiwanese flags
The photo says it all

Update 8/15:

Activists on the Kai Fung have reportedly landed on the Diaoyus/Senkakus after their vessel was rammed (likely forcibly bumped) by Japanese Coast Guard ships trying to deter the crew from reaching their destination. Most of the crew is in Japanese custody.

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Fourteen brave souls set sail for what they hoped would be a voyage of protest championed by their nations. Up to now they have been beset by dwindling food supplies, government obstruction, and a threatening tropical storm. In the process, the journey of the Kai Fung No. 2 has provided fresh insight into the process of managing the at-sea skirmishes that blow over into diplomatic confrontations.

 

According to The South China Morning Post, Kai Fung No. 2 got underway Sunday from Hong Kong with eight activists from Hong Kong, Macau, and man from mainland China, while the remaining six are ship’s company and reporters. Their destination was the disputed Senkakus/Diaoyus/Tiaoyus claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwain, under Japanese control, and home to a hearty tribe of goats. Unfortunately things didn’t go as planned. On Monday, the SMCP reported:

Activists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China initially planned to undertake the voyage together, but the mainlanders yesterday said they would withdraw.”

The Taiwanese were also prevented from getting underway when their charter company unexpectedly cancelled their trip. The Kai Fung barely slipped past the HK government after its previous 6 attempts were blocked. The captain reportedly waited out a boarding party of four HK marine police officer in the locked captain’s bridge until they retreated as the vessel headed to international waters. Misfortune didn’t stop at sea, however:

The Hong Kong activists’ vessel had a bad start, as much of their food rations fell overboard amid the rough seas. Organizers said they hoped to restock Kai Fung No 2, with 14 people on board, in Taiwan.

These plans were dashed as Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration denied them entry, ostensibly for lack of a permit. In a session of that nation’s National Security Council later that day, the country’s officials decided to allow the vessel entry on humanitarian grounds due to the shrinking supplies and the approach of Tropical Storm Kai Tak. Kai Fung is now expected to call at the northern Taiwanese port of Keelung.

 

Whether the Kai Fung actually makes it to its original destination, the episode shows that China and Taiwan will go to great lengths to control the timing and nature of their confrontations. Both nations have been far from shy in advancing their claims on disputed maritime territories (China sent patrol vessels to the islands in July), but they typically like to deal with other nations in a more controlled manner, through fishing fleets or state vessels, to best calculate the diplomatic impact and repercussions. Admittedly many of the confrontations in the South China Sea can be chalked up to the PRC’s various regional and state agencies vying for influence and favor. But when an at-sea flare-up doesn’t stand to directly bring favor to any state official the central regime can pull back on the reigns with the cooperation of the various arms of government.

 

It’s possible that in the aftermath of last month’s incursion by China and the maneuvering of the Japanese central government to prevent provocations by Tokyo’s nationalist governor, an unspoken (or clandestine) peace has been brokered between the claimants to keep the issue at bay until after elections in Taiwan and the leadership transition in China. Hong Kong said the owner of the Kai Fung now faces fines upon the group’s return. If they make it to the islands they are likely to face Japanese coast guard vessels ready to interdict and turn them back.  From the Japan Times:

The protesters aboard the Hong Kong vessel have said they will tear down Japanese-built structures and plant a Chinese flag to declare sovereignty if they manage to land on the isles.”

Chinese activists aren’t the only one to test the Japanese government’s ability to keep a lid on confrontation – nationalist lawmakers from Japan may be planning to make a trip to the islands later this month. 

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

A Busy Week in the South China Sea

 

South China Sea Claims. The Economist

It’s been a busy week for the South China Sea. For those of you keeping score at home, these are some of the news stories we’ve been following:

 

1.      Post-ASEAN fall-out: After ASEAN failed last week to release a joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years, Cambodia is looking to some in the region like a Chinese proxy playing the role of spoiler. Indonesia managed to salvage a version of the “code of conduct” for the South China Sea, a 6-point declaration to essentially work peacefully to implement existing maritime law and guidelines and avoid military confrontations: making progress by reaffirming the status quo.

 

2.      Beijing announces troop build-up in Paracels: On Monday, China said it would  send troops to guard its newly incorporated city of Sansha. The most likely location is the largest island, Woody Island/Yongxing. Fun fact – according to Chinese reports the city, home to 1,000 across various islands, already has a karaoke parlor up and running. Preparations for hosting the troops may take longer – the announcement and move is more symbolic than practical at this time.

 

3.      The Philippines and Vietnam Protest China’s moves: Manila summoned the Chinese ambassador to complain about the new garrison, while President Benigno Aquino took to the airwaves and decried Chinese provocations in an address to the nation. Meanwhile, Hanoi filed an official diplomatic complaint about the build-up in the Paracels, which it too claims. Both the Philippines and Vietnam however reiterated their desire for a diplomatic solution and stated they would not seek military confrontation.

 

Allies…but in arms?

4.      The International Crisis Group releases report on the SCS: Said the report: “The failure to reduce the risks of conflict, combined with the internal economic and political factors that are pushing claimants toward more assertive behaviour, shows that trends in the South China Sea are moving in the wrong direction.” Interestingly, the report also believes the Philippines made the wrong move in the recent Scarborough Shoal stand-off with China by sending in a naval vessel, thereby giving the Chinese an excuse to escalate, to play up nationalism to their domestic audience. The report also states the U.S. might not be obligated to assist the Philippines in the event of an attack in the South China Sea under the terms of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, as the U.S. has yet to make a formal statement whether the Spratleys and other disputed maritime areas are covered under the treaty’s terms.

 

5.      Taiwan to ship armament to the Spratleys: Taiwan has confirmed it will send a mix of mortars and artillery to Taiping, the largest of islands and host to a 130-strong Taiwanese force, in August. Fun fact – the total land mass of the 100 Spratley “islands” is less than 2 square miles.

 

6.      The Philippines ratifies a long-languishing Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Australia. “Although the agreement is not a defense pact, its symbolism cannot be lost on China,” President Benigno Arroyo said after the vote. The pact, however, has more to do with pursuing terrorists in the country’s muslim South – primarily the island of Mindanao.

 

No one of these stories points to a looming conflict, but taken together they provide context for what has been the increasing trend of looking towards military power for lack of a diplomatic progress.