The U.S. is monitoring increased international tensions in the disputed Senkaku Islands in the South China Sea after twice in three days China sent jet fighters to the “Air Defense Identification Zone” it has declared around the chain.
The sorties came after both Japan and South Korea sent fighters into the area to challenge China’s exclusive claim to the uninhabited islands.
Chinese Air Force Col. Shen Jinke claims his nation’s flights are routine and a “defensive measure and in line with international common practices.”
The islands located about 250 miles east of the Chinese mainland have been a point of contention over the past year, because Japan and China, along with Taiwan and South Korea, all express claims to them.
Clarion Project Intelligence and National Security analyst Ryan Mauro says the declaration is China flexing its muscle.
“This is a way of China declaring military domination over the islands without officially taking them over. By saying it is an air defense zone, China is trying to dominate the airspace. It’s basically saying, ‘These are ours and if your aircraft trespass, we have the right to shoot them down,’” Mauro said.
C. J. Burke, CEO of intelligence and consulting firm Burke and Associates, notes China’s long history of animosity toward Japan.
“I think instead you’re seeing the outbreak of a war of ideals. China has had a major issue with Japan for the last 5,000 years or so, and World War II only exacerbated this,” Burke said.
Burke says he believes many Chinese wouldn’t object to a war with Japan.
“Large contingents of the Chinese population would relish a war with Japan (even if they haven’t thought out how that would actually turn out). So China makes inroads with these groups and simultaneously pressures Japan,” Burke said.
Burke said people in both countries hold long-standing resentments toward the other.
“China has a populace that would be happy to see Japan suffer. And Japan feels much the same way at a sociological level. So China pressuring this way costs the emperor and the Diet some infra-political coinage,” Burke said.
A former CIA station chief who asked not to be identified said a war between China and Japan would “cost the U. S. economically big time.”
However, he added that in reality, the war would evolve into a war between the U. S. and China.
“It would not be a war between Japan and China. The U.S. has a mutual defense treaty with Japan, as well as our treaties with South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and the Philippines. So, it would be a war between the U.S. and China,” the former station chief said.
A war would end trade between the U. S. and the Far East, he said, however, it also would erase the U.S.’s debt to China.
“Some parts of the Japanese political scale really would enjoy lashing out at China,” Burke said.
Analysts speculate on Taiwan’s interest in the dispute. Burke said Taiwan also claims the islands and any conflict would impact Taiwan’s economy. He added that Taiwan also sees the islands as a military asset.
“The ownership of the Senkaku Islands puts some pressure on Taiwan as they can be used for staging, intelligence gathering, etc. A quick look at the map affirms this,” Burke said.
Burke said the dispute may be reflected by Taiwan’s military hardware purchases.
“This is the major focus of this dance. Watch for submarine purchases on the part of Taiwan, U.S. 7th fleet deployments and weird holidays or ceremonies in China that reaffirm patriotism,” Burke said.
Analysts are mixed on whether they believe there will be a war in the region, but one result could be a Japanese military.
“The dispute may push their increasingly nationalist government to push further to amend their constitution to allow for an actual military,” said one analyst who asked not to be named.
Burke said he believes the U. S. will stick with Japan.
“The U.S. has already affirmed that the Japanese Defense Treaty applies in the case of the Senkaku Islands, so there wouldn’t be a war between the PRC and Japan,” Burke said. “It’d be something with the U.S. involved. At this time, China doesn’t have the means to wage even tactical war with the U.S. and Japan. So this isn’t in the cards.”
The mission sending Chinese jets to the area came three days after the U.S. flew two B-52s over the islands. The unarmed B-52s were flying from Guam to Okinawa to participate in the naval exercise with the Japanese navy.
The Japanese government also ordered its two major airlines, Japan Air Lines and All Nippon Airways, to ignore China’s order.
Both Japan and the United States say they will challenge China’s claim to 1 million square miles of the East China Sea, an issue analysts say is a test of Japanese Prime Minister Shintaro Abe’s government.