East China Sea: China reacts badly to Japan’s move to double military spending

An aircraft carrier battle group is engaged in one of China’s most powerful displays of gunboat diplomacy yet, launching combat aircraft off Japan just days after Tokyo declared Beijing a “strategic challenge”.

The powerful force, including the training carrier People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Liaoning, three guided missile cruisers and two modern destroyers, is being supported by two large, modern replenishment and resupply ships. This has analysts watching their movements closely.

One task group, centred on the Liaoning, was spotted in the East China Sea on Thursday. It passed through the narrow strait between the Japanese Miyako Islands and Okinawa Island and into the Pacific on Friday.

This was the same day Tokyo abandoned its post-World War II policy of limiting the size and capabilities of its defence force.

“The strategic challenge posed by China is the biggest Japan has ever faced,” Tokyo’s new National Security Strategy review declared.

With the Japanese destroyer Kirisame watching, Liaoning began launching its aircraft 250km off Oki Daito Island, southeast of Okinawa. While tiny compared to its US counterparts, it nevertheless gives Beijing a potent military power projection ability that its neighbours don’t.

But the presence of three modern Type 055 cruisers makes this such a formidable force. The 13,000-ton warships are more heavily armed than any guided-missile-carrying warship in the West.

And the presence of supply and replenishment ships means the entire force can venture deep into the Pacific for extended periods.

Pushback posturing

Chinese state-controlled media reports the carrier battle group will engage in a series of “realistic combat-oriented exercises”. These enhance its “capabilities in safeguarding national sovereignty, territorial integrity and development interests”.

But its timing also makes it an exercise in gunboat diplomacy.

Japan has set aside a spending cap that limited funding of its defence forces to just 1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). It’s now targeting a 2 per cent figure, similar to that set as a nominal benchmark in Europe and Australia.

That will give the Japanese Self Defence Force (JSDF) the third-largest funding pool behind China and the United States.

But the abandonment of a post-World War II promise not to possess “strike” weapons – those with the range and precision to attack nearby nations – has China up in arms.

Tokyo says the reason is to obtain the ability to destroy hostile missile and aircraft launch facilities.

Threats without boundaries

Beijing is upset.

“Saying such things within the documents severely distorts the facts, violates the principles and spirit of the four China-Japan political documents, wantonly hypes ‘China threat’ and provokes regional tension and confrontation,” a Chinese embassy statement reads.

“Japan should return to the political consensus that China and Japan are ‘partners and pose no threat to each other’, and avoid damaging bilateral relations and destroying regional security and stability.”

“Japan has a history of straying into militarism and committing aggression and crimes against humanity, which has brought disaster to the region and the world,” the Chinese embassy stated.

State-controlled media has said its warships are at sea to enhance its “territorial integrity and development interests”.

“The Liaoning carrier group training is also a response to the US Navy’s increasing intrusion into waters near the Spratly Islands, showing them that the PLA is always ready to cope with the American’s provocation even when the Lunar New Year is coming,” added Chinese Communist Party military think tank analyst Zhou Chenming.

The Philippines, for one, isn’t buying it.

Manila has said it’s the Chinese navy, coast guard and fishing fleet which is intruding on its Spratly Island territory. And an international arbitration court ruling in 2015 ruled in favour of the Philippines’ perspective.

“The navy has staged large-scale patrols and drills over the last decade since the US navy started the so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea,” Mr Zhou added.

Meanwhile, China has been actively engaged in doing the opposite. Its sea power is being used to force oil exploration and fishing vessels out of its so-called “Nine Dash Line” – extending from Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the north to Indonesia’s Natuna Islands far to the south.

Tokyo and Beijing dispute who owns the islands strung out between Taiwan and the Japanese home island of Kyushu. But the Chinese embassy has insisted Japan has nothing to complain about as the Diaoyu Islands, the South China Sea, and Taiwan were “entirely within the sovereignty” of China. It’s “not something it will allow Japan to point fingers at”, it stated.

Tokyo, and most of the rest of the world, disagrees with this arbitrary view. And the near-permanent presence of armed Chinese ships in waters off the Senkakus, combined with assertive Chinese activity in the vicinity of Japan, have prompted Tokyo’s defensive stance.

All dressed up, nowhere to go

The PLAN Liaoning, the Type 055 stealth guided missile cruisers Anshan and Wuxi, the Type 052D guided missile destroyer Chengdu, the Type 054 frigate Zaoshuang, and China’s giant supply ship, the Hulunhu entered the Pacific at the weekend.

It followed a similar sortie of several other Chinese warships earlier in the week: the Type 055 cruiser Lhasa, the Type 052D destroyer Kaifeng, the old Soviet-era destroyer Taizhou, an electronic warfare ship and another supply ship.

Mr Zhou says the presence of the two large supply ships suggested the training exercise was likely to extend into next year.

But the Chinese fleet cannot go far. It has nowhere to go.

Most Pacific and South East Asian nations are seriously upset at China’s territorial posturing. And that means ports like Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia are closed to visits.

International think-tank the Brookings Institution has said that’s why Beijing is likely to continue to attempt to establish outposts in places such as the Solomon Islands, and large-scale bases in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar.

“If China gains rights for large-scale overseas military bases, historical cases suggest that it is most likely to be among countries facing acute security requirements that they cannot meet without foreign support,” the report reads. But outcomes aren’t certain, it adds: “Such host nations pose many risks to China, including loss of its bases because of domestic instability or getting drawn into unwanted conflicts”.

Beijing, meanwhile, has insisted it is the victim.

“China has been shouldering responsibility for regional and world peace and stability. What China’s development brings to the world is opportunity, and the country should not be labelled as threat, challenge or coercion,” the Tokyo embassy stressed.

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

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