WASHINGTON--The central question in the row between Japan and China over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands is how the United States will respond if tensions spill over into military conflict.
The Asahi Shimbun interviewed Toshi Yoshihara, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, who is a specialist in China’s navy and its strategic implications for U.S. policy in the Pacific.
Excerpts of the interview follow:
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Question: What do you think is the fundamental cause of the maritime disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea?
Answer: Fundamentally, it is about this growing imbalance of power in East Asia, the rise of Chinese comprehensive national power and also the rise of Chinese military power, particularly naval power. I think this is creating a shift in the maritime balance.
And this is giving China a new set of tools to enforce China’s claims and aspirations. And I think there is also a larger issue at stake, and that is how the Chinese interpret and understand global norms, particularly international norms, underwriting the global commons. I think that, as long as China’s world view is an exceptionalist one, that China has special privileges in what it calls “the China Seas” or “the near seas,” then I think coexistence will be very difficult.
As long as the Chinese take exception to those rules, I think that makes it very difficult for the two sides to agree. If they cannot agree on the rules of the game, that makes some sort of an entente, condominium, some modus vivendi, very, very difficult. And I think the United States, Japan, South Korea, and the other liberal democracies that share the same values and have the same stakes in the international liberal order are likely to be on the same side on this issue.
Q: Compared to the United States, how competitive is Chinese sea power?
A: I think what we’re looking at, right now, is not your traditional military balance comparison. It’s not your traditional net assessment, how many ships the Chinese have, how many ships the United States or the Japanese have. Right now, it’s still a competition between access and anti-access. So, the weapons systems that the Chinese are developing are asymmetric responses to U.S. platforms. So, they’re not going to look the same.
So, a traditional net assessment is not going to give you a very accurate picture. It’s looking at to what extent can the Chinese use their anti-access weapons to raise perceptions of costs and risks to U.S. forces in a crisis, to such an extent that the United States will politically decide to delay action or not act at all. That, I think, is the real measure.
And I think, in my conversation with students here at the War College, over the past six years I’ve seen shifts in attitude, from the tactical, at the tactical level. If you talk to surface warfare officers, the folks who drive ships, they will tell you that there are certain bodies of water that they don’t want to go to ever again, because they don’t think they’re very survivable anymore.
China is a long way off from putting all those things together to become a genuine blue water navy. However, short of that, China can already do a lot, in its own neighborhood.
Q: What would be U.S. and Japanese response in case of an emergency involving the Senkaku Islands?
A: My view is that the local actors in the maritime domain should, essentially, be the first responders to any encroachment at sea by the Chinese. And so, Japan is, essentially, the first line of defense for the Senkakus and whatever other territorial issues that Japan has with its neighbors. So, Japan needs to have both the capacity and the political will to, essentially, respond to Chinese actions, to be the first to do so on the scene.
And I think, certainly, Japan has demonstrated both the political will and the capacity to do so, and, in my view, as long as Japan demonstrates that capacity and that political will, I think Tokyo should be assured of U.S. assistance, if that kind of help is ever needed.
I think it would be a much harder case to sell, politically, if there’s no evidence that the Japanese were doing anything to defend those islands. But I think, because the Japanese are doing their best to fend off the Chinese, it’s not a worry. I mean, in my view, at this point at least.
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