(Reuters) – In late October, flotillas of Chinese warships and submarines sliced through passages in the Japanese archipelago and out into the western Pacific for 15 days of war games.
The drills, pitting a “red force” against a “blue force,” were the first in this area, combining ships from China’s main south, east and north fleets, according to the Chinese military. Land-based bombers and surveillance aircraft also flew missions past Japan to support the navy units.
In official commentaries, senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers boasted their navy had “dismembered” the so-called first island chain – the arc of islands enclosing China’s coastal waters, stretching from the Kuril Islands southward through the Japanese archipelago, Taiwan, the Northern Philippines and down to Borneo.
Named Manoeuvre 5, these were no ordinary exercises. They were the latest in a series of increasingly complex and powerful thrusts through the first island chain into the Pacific. For the first time in centuries, China is building a navy that can break out of its confined coastal waters to protect distant sea lanes and counter regional rivals.
Beijing’s military strategists argue this naval punch is vital if China is to avoid being bottled up behind a barrier of U.S. allies, vulnerable to a repeat of the humiliation suffered at the hands of seafaring Europeans and Japanese through the colonial period. “It tells Japan and the United States that they are not able to contain China within the first island chain,” says Shen Dingli, a security expert and professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “So don’t bet on their chances to do so at a time of crisis.”
In the process, the rapidly expanding PLA navy (PLAN) is driving a seismic shift in Asia’s military balance. China, traditionally an inwardly focused continental power, is becoming a seagoing giant with a powerful navy to complement its huge ship-borne trade.
“As China grows, China’s maritime power also grows,” says Ren Xiao, director of the Centre for the Study of Chinese Foreign Policy at Fudan University and a former Chinese diplomat posted to Japan. “China’s neighboring countries should be prepared and become accustomed to this.”
China’s strongly nationalistic Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, has thrown his personal weight behind the maritime strategy. In a speech to the Politburo in the summer, Xi said the oceans would play an increasingly important role this century in China’s economic development, according to accounts of his remarks published in the state-controlled media.
“We love peace and will remain on a path of peaceful development but that doesn’t mean giving up our rights, especially involving the nation’s core interests,” he was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.
BLUE WATER AMBITIONS
China is also making waves in the South China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with a number of littoral states. But it is the pace and tempo of its deployments and exercises around Japan that provide the clearest evidence of Beijing’s “blue water” ambitions. Fleets of pale grey, PLA warships are a now a permanent presence near or passing through the Japanese islands.
An acrimonious standoff over a rocky jumble of disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu in China, has given China an opportunity to flex its new maritime muscle. Beijing has deployed paramilitary flotillas and surveillance aircraft to this zone for more than a year, where they jostle with Japanese counterparts.
Tension flared dangerously last week when China imposed a new air defense zone over the islands, demanding that foreign aircraft lodge flight plans with Beijing before entering this area. In defiance of the zone on Tuesday, two unarmed U.S. B-52 bombers on a training mission flew over the islands without informing Beijing. The flight did not prompt a response from China.
“The policy announced by the Chinese over the weekend is unnecessarily inflammatory,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in California, where President Barack Obama is traveling.
Washington and Tokyo immediately signaled they would ignore the restriction. The Obama administration also reminded China that the treaty obliging the United States to defend Japan if it came under attack also covered the disputed islands.
Particularly unnerving for Tokyo are the increasingly common transits of powerful Chinese naval squadrons through the narrowest straits of the Japanese archipelago, sometimes within sight of land.
This puts East Asia’s two economic giants, both with potent navies, in direct military competition for the first time since the 1945 surrender of Japan’s two million-strong invasion force in China. Drawing on a reservoir of bitterness over that earlier conflict, the demeanor of both sides signals this is a dangerous moment as U.S. naval dominance in Asia wanes. Even if both sides exercise restraint, the risk of an accidental clash or conflict is ever present.
“China and Japan have to come to terms with the fact that their militaries will operate in close proximity to each other,” says James Holmes, a maritime strategist at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and a former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer. “Geography compels them to do so.”
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