Thinking About the Unthinkable: War in the Senkakus
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Thinking About the Unthinkable: War in the Senkakus


I am more sanguine than most about how the Japanese Self-Defense Forces stack up against China’s People’s Liberation Army. The SDF would acquit itself well in combat if commanders artfully combined all warfighting implements at their disposal, from ships to aircraft to shore-fired missiles. Tokyo has options; it even has advantages.

Judging from the contents of my email inbox the past few weeks, however, some Japanese commentators mistook this guardedly upbeat assessment for a prediction that Japan would prevail in any trial of arms—including a clash over the Senkaku/Diaoyu archipelago, west of the southernmost tip of the Ryukyus chain. Au contraire. Extolling the JSDF’s material and human excellence in general terms is a far cry from predicting a Japanese triumph in any particular contingency. There are no sure things in war.

Furthermore, a Senkakus conflict is probably the hardest case the JSDF may confront. Glance at the map. Geography may not be destiny, but it molds destiny. The archipelago lies within easy reach of PLA air, naval, and missile forces concentrated opposite nearby Taiwan. Advantage: China. On the allied side, Okinawa is home to U.S. Marine and Air Force bases as well as the JSDF’s Naha Air Base. It is situated a couple of hundred miles away, roughly the same distance as the mainland coast. That’s no small thing. But the Senkakus are remote from major bases in the Japanese home islands. The U.S. naval station at Yokosuka, for example, lies over 1,000 miles distant.

Even though Japan holds the contested ground, then, geography and the balance of forces would favor China should a conflict transpire today. The PLA will hold that edge unless Japan takes dramatic measures to fortify its southern ramparts. If the JSDF cannot win the air and sea battle around the Senkakus, it will lose the islands to any concerted PLA offensive. If nothing else, Chinese forces that controlled nearby waters and airspace could simply cordon off the archipelago and wait out the JSDF. Any Japanese defenders emplaced there would wither over time, bereft of food, water, and other critical supplies.

What to do? If commanding the air and sea is the key, then Tokyo must devise forces and plans for assuring JSDF access to the islands while denying PLA forces access. That could mean positioning mobile anti-ship missiles on Yonaguni Island, at the southern tip of the Ryukyus and within missile range of the Senkakus. (Such a move would be certain to play well with the locals.) It could mean expanding the submarine fleet and adjusting submarine deployment patterns southward. Patrolling the waters near the islets would comprise a potent deterrent. It could mean fielding new classes of small missile craft to wage guerrilla war at sea against Chinese surface ships—much as the PLA Navy envisions doing against U.S.-Japanese naval forces.

It certainly means Tokyo must act. Agonizing endlessly over measures like stationing token ground forces in the Ryukyus—as the nation has been doing for years now—does little to shore up Japan’s strategic position along its southern periphery. Fielding excellent military forces is a start. But if Japan’s leadership wants to win, it must put the JSDF in position to do so. Faster, please.

January 24, 2014 at 17:31

Nobody will ever wage a war, its just political propaganda. This time or day I dont believe that any Chinese Sailor would ever attack a Japanese Destroyer since in that case, Atago class destroyers can blow anything China has in its arsenal

August 4, 2013 at 03:20

What makes you think that fighting would be completly isolated between China and Japan. A conflict in senkaku islands would be a great chance for russia to take back some islands that they claim were theirs. US would be obliged to help Japan, but would not be able to fight in both the north and south of Japan. Meanwhile in europe, the war in Afghanistan has ended and Armies have got nothing to do. They might be tempted to co-ordinate a invasion of Western Russia, or go fight in the south China sea. At which point, North Korea invades south Korea under the impression that there will be no US support. India and pakistan have some scores to settle, and before you know it, world war 3 has just started. Assuming it stays non-nuclear of course.

July 15, 2013 at 22:10

China’a anti carrier ballistic missile is not yet tested and the American and Japanese navy have aegis vessels, aegis vessels are anti ballistics missile ship, they can kill the anti ship ballistic missile.

January 9, 2013 at 14:52

Talk like China was 50 years ago. China is changing everday!  US and Japan combined still would not have enough firepower against China in south China sea and East China sea! US might have 11 carriers but non of them can come close 2,000-3,000 km within China coast. China needs only keep firing its missiles at those bases. The fact baout China right now: China has this DF 21 aircraft carrier killer missiles world first system. China has a very good tracking system and able to intercept incoming missiles. China could kill satelites in low earth orbit and also soon high earth orbit satelites! Just hope there will be no wars.

November 17, 2012 at 19:58

Logically no, but Brits did Falklands.  For Chinese, it is not possible for China to lose "Diaoyu" as that would be too much after the greivances of WWII.  As long as Japanese are rational, CPC will put on hold, and not do anything either. Nobody wants a war at this stage.  It was revved up for the elections to show who is tougher. Putting country aside, the ones that really suffered I saw in a documentray are the Taiwanese fishermen who need this area to fish, far more than anyone else.  

November 17, 2012 at 19:45

@Kanes, interesting point, i agree. China has time on its side, it is willing to tolerate Hong Kong and Taiwan for decades.   the issue is the 'private purchase' that is a slap in the face, but that shouldnt change anything.  I think in another 20 years, things could be v different. 

November 17, 2012 at 19:40

the big winners would be India and Korea.  India will become the next big factory and korea will take over all the high tech and car market from Japan.  I dont think Japan given the situation can take a war.  China likewise, but it can take the punishment and just roll back its development for 20 years.  The CCP become stronger because it would sacrifice as many soldiers as it takes and NOT seen to lose a war. Would US and Japan have that stomach? I doubt. 

November 17, 2012 at 19:32

US willing to suffer heavy casualties? never heard that one.  Japanese were ordered to commit suicide if they failed, and many did. US soldiers surrender.  After losing too many americans for a few silly islands, the US had to drop the Atomic bombs before the Russians took more N islands. Under Mao, the Chinese sacrifice huge numbers against better armed Japanese, koumingtan, and Allied (Korea). Now are the Japanese soldiers the same under their past 'militant' culture? I dont think so either.  

October 11, 2012 at 14:22

If Japan prepared the Senkaku Island like Iwo Jima, Chinese will not make it. The Chinese will not want to die,  unlike the US marines who willing to suffer heavy casualities.

October 11, 2012 at 04:09

Interesting but no idea why China as a member of UN security council has all the right to enforce the Potsdam Declaration again more than 60years after the San Francisco treaty. As people know, the purpose of GHQ/SCAP set up in Japan after WWII was to execute the Potsdam Declaration…… Needless to say, PRChina did not take part in the Potsdam Declaration/GHQ SCAP at that time but the Soviet did.

January 6, 2014 at 23:56

Technically most scholars agreed that San Francisco treaty was illegal . As it is just between the Japanese and USA. Pots dam declaration superseded it as it represented the winners of ww2. U are a fool to ask this question

October 10, 2012 at 06:31

As the world economy downturn is contunuing, we are really need a great war to re start the economic engine.
China is actullay the most need party since its economy is getting slow month by month. A war with Japan is a blessing for its economy and manufacturing sector.  

October 10, 2012 at 06:12

Unless PLA can pull through a victory. China will not waste time with conventional weapons. They will go nuclear. Or better still, let the North Korean guy do the honours. On Japan. USA cannot risk total destruction of Japan. This forces them for a compromise. If Japan suffers massive destriction, which it will in a war with China, Japan's manufacturing capabilities suffer permanantly as Chinese, European, American, Australian, Indian manufacturing take over. Eventually China will emerge with the replacement for Toyota, etc.
Given the high stakes, Russians will also come to the party. Russia considers the US-Japanese-South Korean threat as the most potent new threat. It is a winnable war for the Russian-Chinese coalition and an unwinnable war for USA-Japan-South Korea.
There were worse provocations including the sinking of a South Korean warship. But did USA, SK or Japan go to war with NK or China? No. They can't afford to.
Timing for a war is not right for China. It should wait for the next earthquake in Japan to show some aggression. After 1912 a big one is due soon. It is in Chinese traditional beliefs that nature's energy must be harnessed for human endevours.

October 10, 2012 at 05:54

Japan must endure the unendurable. With a massive population of 110 million in a small space, war can have devastating consequences than to the opponent.

October 10, 2012 at 02:12

Does this recommendation ever consider the costs inflicted? Can Japan afford the huge costs and have the willingness just to get such a small uninhabited island? I am sceptic.

October 10, 2012 at 01:50

Interesting but no idea why China as a member of UN security council has all the right to enforce the Potsdam Declaration. As people know, the reason why GHQ was set up in Japan is to execute the Potsdam Declaration….  Needless to say, PRC China did not take part in the Potsdam Declaration.

January 6, 2014 at 23:43

You are fool. China .USA. British. Russia all of them were the victors in ww2. That told why pots dam declaration were shared by each of them

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