A Cold War in the East China Sea?

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A Cold War in the East China Sea?

Amid ambiguous signaling, hardening alliances, and the militarization of the dispute, has a Cold War begun over the Senkakus?

Tensions in the East China Sea over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands seem to have plateaued off in recent weeks, with approaches by Chinese fishing boats and maritime patrol vessels turning into routine, if not banal, events. However, as high-level talks between U.S. and Japanese defense officials were held on March 21-22, Beijing said it was “extremely concerned” by reports that the talks included contingency planning for joint efforts if China were to invade the disputed territory. 

Described as “regularly scheduled consultations,” the talks in Hawaii were held between Admiral Samuel Locklear, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, and General Shigeru Iwasaki, joint chief of the Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF). Prior to the meeting, Kyodo News reported that the talks would touch on joint operations planning for any contingency involving the islets, and added that Locklear and Iwasaki were expected to agree to accelerate the drafting of operational plans to that effect.

U.S. defense officials would not officially confirm or deny whether a Senkaku scenario would be part of the discussions. An unnamed U.S. defense official, however, was quoted in the press as saying, "“We have contingency plans and we discuss them with allies," with a Pentagon official saying, off the record, “we’re a planning organization.”

The ambiguity, which may not be dissimilar to that adopted by the U.S. in the Taiwan Strait, can be interpreted as an attempt by the U.S. to balance its deterrence strategy vis-à-vis China with efforts to avoid alienating it unduly. To sweeten the pill, Pentagon officials reaffirmed Washington’s position that it does not take sides in the dispute and hopes that the claimants will resolve the impasse peacefully.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has also declined to comment on the contents and nature of the talks, simply saying that Washington and Tokyo were cooperating closely on security matters.

Despite those attempts to play down possible U.S.- JDSF cooperation, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry weighed in last week, saying that Beijing was “extremely concerned” by reports that U.S. forces in the Pacific and the JSDF may be upgrading their defense plans over the islets.

Still, not to be outdone by Washington in the ambiguity game, Beijing sent its own mixed signals on March 22, when Vice President Li Yuanchao told a Japanese business delegation in the Chinese capital that he was confident that Japan and China could resolve the dispute through dialogue. And in turn, the Japanese on March 24 signaled their intention to facilitate bilateral talks between the new leaders of Japan and China on the sidelines of the annual trilateral summit with China and South Korea in May.

Last week’s Cold War-styled mix of bluster and reassurance occurred amid reports that Japan’s new indigenous patrol aircraft, the P-1, will begin service with the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) this month. Having completed engineering and operational testing, two P-1s, designed by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, are to be deployed at Atsugi Air Base in Kanagawa Prefecture, southern Japan, later this month. The P-1 are part of a program launched in 2001 to replace the 80+ ageing U.S.-made P-3C “Orion” maritime patrol aircraft currently in service in the JMSDF. A total of seven P-1s are scheduled for deployment at the base by March 2014. The JMSDF has plans to acquire a total of 70 P-1s.

The turbofan engine-powered P-1 comes with an HPS-106 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) and an “artificial intelligence” electronic suite to assist the tactical coordinator (known as “TACCO”) with anti-submarine warfare operations. It can carry a variety of bombs for a total payload of approximately 20,000 lbs, as well as missiles including the AGM-84 Harpoon, ASM-1C and the AGM-65 Maverick.

Meanwhile, citing Japanese defense officials, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported on March 23 that using “the latest technologies,” Japan intends to add six new submarines to its fleet by 2021, at a cost of 50 billion yen (U.S. $528 million), as part of efforts to strengthen its defenses of the Senkakus. Japan’s submarine fleet currently consists of 16 boats. Reports also say that as many as 400 JMSDF students will receive specialized submarine warfare training at the Submarine Training Center in Hiroshima Prefecture.

Although the Senkaku dispute goes back several years, only now, through ambiguity, alliances and the gradual militarization of the conflict, is it taking a form that increasingly looks like a Cold War. Whether alliances and ambiguity lower, or increase, risks of clashes remains to be seen, but the U.S. seems to be banking on its past continuing, ensuring that the islets do not become the fuse that leads to war between the two Asian giants. Undoubtedly, talks of joint defense under existing treaties carries the risk of emboldening Tokyo and dragging the U.S. into someone else’s conflict — something that was constantly on the minds of Washington officials during the Cold War — but this may also constitute the realization that status quo politics in the East China Sea might no longer be a viable option, and that their continuation was an invitation to escalation.