How Japan can deter China’s increasing maritime activity

By: Gen Kawasaki

Minami Kojima (foreground), Kita Kojima (middle right) and Uotsuri (background) are the disputed islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. Source: Washington Times

The 21st century has seen China and Japan drift towards treacherously ‘warmer’ waters. The two countries have failed, over and over, to settle historical matters and territorial disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. With a shifting balance of maritime power, their geostrategic calculations in the East and South China Sea cannot be overlooked.

Given the amalgamation of events in the region, could Tokyo implement a strategy of deterrence in the disputed waters due to Beijing’s increasing ventures?

As China currently occupies seven artificial features in the South China – fortified with three fully operational airstrips and Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs),[1] Japan could implement a strategy of deterrence whilst increasing maritime interoperability with its regional allies. Since March 2016, Tokyo has become more proactive within the regional security framework by increasing both multilateral naval exercises and arms exports to bolster maritime security and capacity of regional allies. [2]

In the future, China should expect an uptick in United States military presence in the southern waters, with Japan becoming more willing to participate in Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) and other maritime operations – as demonstrated during their last Iron Fist exercise, where they conducted mock amphibious landings. [3] Tokyo should also strengthen their interoperability with regional allies in order to deter China from deploying submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in their little ‘bastion’ they have created in the Paracels and the Spratlys. [4] The most progressive and rational response Japan can take in the South China Sea is to deepen a three-way strategic alliance between Australia and the U.S. aimed to deter and ‘contain’ China by assuring presence during peacetime and superiority during conflict. Indeed, all three countries employ or have plans to employ a number of common weapon platforms and systems such as the F-35 fighter,[5] [6] anti-submarine helicopters and the Aegis Combat System, facilitating the opportunity to work together and develop common operating concepts, tactics and doctrine. [7] Increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sharing would also help deter Chinese submarine excursions and naval activities.

Deterrence can also be applied in the East China Sea with the lingering Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. The Senkaku are prime maritime real estate, and Tokyo’s decision to refrain from deploying permanent troops on them, combined with Beijing’s increasing ventures, may erode Japan’s geostrategic position in the years to come. Two hypothetical scenarios illustrating how a deployment of permanent military troops would be an effective deterrence against Chinese land proclamations can be employed.

The first scenario is that China could invade the island with conventional troops to prompt negotiations on her terms and dare Japan to be the first to resort to lethal force to reclaim them. The second scenario is that Beijing could use ‘civilian activists,’ amongst which there could be undercover Special Forces, to occupy the island (contingencies can vary from a group of students planting a flag on the island or ‘researchers’ setting up a camp to conduct marine studies). The scenarios can be further developed into airborne incursions where the troops/civilians can be inserted by helicopters or other aircraft. This being said, although one can physically block boats without sinking them, the only way to prevent the passage of an aircraft is to shoot it down. [8] Should the Japanese Coast Guard use lethal force to try and retake the islands or prevent the aircraft from landing, Japan would be forced into a position of aggressor – something that any actor in the South China Sea should avoid at all costs.

Without troops on the islands, an invasion could be seen as ratcheting up tensions. With troops on the Senkakus, invasion would mean starting a war, in which the Chinese would be depicted as the aggressors. [9] These examples highlight that for Japan, it would be wise to station permanent troops on the Senkakus in order to deter any possible land proclamation and to maintain the current status quo. Indeed, democracies traditionally avoid being the first ones to shoot, and Tokyo’s move would make China less likely to use force if it implicates drawing first blood and undeniably appearing as the aggressor.

China’s ‘cabbage’ strategy, [10] as seen in the South China Sea, aims at letting the regional and international level acclimatize to the newly established status quo – that of artificially built islands. If we were to apply this to the East China Sea, a sluggish and indecisive response from Tokyo upon the capturing of an undefended Senkakus could possibly lead, over the long term, to Beijing’s control of the islands as the new status quo. If Japan were to retake the islands, they could be depicted as the aggressors who are breaking the status quo.

However, Japan’s choice to deter may be seen by China as an act of aggression. China could react against this in a disproportionate manner, from antagonistic rhetorical campaigns, to economic sanctions, or even potentially to a physical attack. In order to avoid such misunderstandings, Tokyo should make its utmost priority to remain transparent and responsive towards Beijing about their strategic moves in this naval chess game[11]. This strategy of deterrence should go hand-in-hand with increased diplomatic talks between China, Japan and the US. Perhaps the establishment of a Beijing-Tokyo hotline would relieve tensions and bring the countries closer, whilst reducing the scope for miscalculation and misunderstandings. However, the preliminary challenge is to reach an agreement to firstly meet.



Gen Kawasaki is a second year undergraduate at King’s College London. He was the researcher and coordinator for the 2016 King’s College London Crisis Simulation that replicated tensions in the South China Sea.





[1] Reuters, Staff Report. “‘Chinese missiles’ in South China Sea seen as escalation of tensions.” Japan News, February 16, 2016. Accessed May 07, 2016.

[2] Tetsuro Kosaka.  “China’s island-building in the South China Sea is ruffling feathers worldwide.” Nikkei Asian Review, April 21, 2016. Accessed April 22, 2016.

[3] Defense Media Activity, Department of Defense. “Exercise Iron Fist 2016: Amphibious Operations.” Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) video 01:45, March 3, 2016. Accessed April 21, 2016.

[4] Tetsuro Kosaka. “China’s island-building in the South China Sea is ruffling feathers worldwide.” Nikkei Asian Review, April 21, 2016. Accessed April 22, 2016.

[5] “Joint Strike Fighters: Government to spend $12 billion on 58 more next-generation F-35s” ABC News, April 23 2014. Accessed May 7, 2016.

[6] Chris Cooper, Sachiko Sakamaki and Gopal Ratnam. “Lockheed Martin wins Japan Order for 42 F-35 Fighter Planes.” Bloomberg, December 20, 2011. Accessed May 7, 2016.

[7] Andrew Shearer. “One way forward in the South China Sea.” Nikkei Asian Review, April 5, 2016. Accessed April 23, 2016.

[8] Alex Calvo. “Why Japan should put boots on the ground on the Senkaku Islands.” Strife Blog, May 25, 2015. Accessed April 22, 2016.

[9] Alex Calvo. “Why Japan should put boots on the ground on the Senkaku Islands.” Strife Blog, May 25, 2015. Accessed April 22, 2016.

[10] Harry Kazianis. “China’s Expanding Cabbage Strategy.” The Diplomat, October 29, 2013. Accessed May 7, 2016.

[11] Riccardo Cociani. “Is War with China inevitable?” The Telegraph, April 18, 2016. Accessed April 19, 2016.


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