Will Beijing Use Force Over Diaoyu Islands?

The Diplomat’s James Holmes writes that Beijing has found “a low-risk way to make a high-impact statement” by taking to the skies in its dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, though the advantages become more blurred when viewed from a tactical perspective:

In operational terms, how does air power fit into China’s toolkit for the island dispute? Aerial patrols are far from the ideal implement for the job. The late Admiral J. C. Wylie helps explain why. Wylie faults air-power proponents for conflating the power to destroy from the air with the capacity to control territory and people. Air forces, he writes, can rain destruction from the sky. But they cannot loiter on station indefinitely to exercise control. To use a law-enforcement simile, planes and helicopters are like police cruisers roaming the streets — except that, unlike police cars, they can’t stop for long, lest they crash. Their presence is episodic.

For Wylie the man with a gun standing at a key spot on the map is the true arbiter of control.  Eighty percent of life is showing up, and staying. Like the cop walking his beat, the soldier, marine, or policeman toting a gun can mount a constant physical presence, and thereby maintain order and suppress lawlessness. Sea power occupies the middle ground between a ground presence and the intermittent presence supplied by air cover. While their endurance is finite and the sea areas they monitor vast, ships can remain on scene for a long time. They can dawdle on the high seas to show the flag and perform police duty.

What does this disquisition mean for the Senkakus impasse? Ships will doubtless remain around the islets to put substance into China’s maritime claims. I doubt Beijing will land law-enforcement personnel, let alone troops, in the Senkakus. The man holding a gun would have to fight his way ashore, perhaps touching off a clash entailing vast and unforeseeable consequences. And airplanes? One imagines Japanese mariners will see them overhead more and more often. Buzzing the islands does little to enforce China’s control there. But it could well advance Beijing’s messaging campaign — helping it consolidate its image as their legitimate ruler.

Indeed, the state-run Global Times boasted on Friday that the surveillance flight “marks another important step for China in safeguarding the sovereignty of the islands.” But while the use of airplanes may enhance China’s messaging campaign, MIT’s M. Taylor Fravel claims that China’s historical behavior in other territorial dispute makes for a dangerous forecast as the current impasse continues:

In cases where China already possessed some of the contested territory, such as a border dispute with Kazakhstan, China had a strong bargaining position and little reason to use force. But in the East China Sea, China does not currently hold any of the Senkaku Islands, which are under Japanese control.

Most importantly, China has used force in territorial disputes during periods of regime insecurity, when leaders have a greater incentive to show resolve: They believe that opposing states seek to take advantage of China’s domestic woes, and that a weak or limited response might increase popular discontent.

China’s leaders today may feel on the ropes for several reasons—elite conflict at the highest levels of the ruling Chinese Communist Party; a slowing economy that undermines the legitimacy of the CCP; and a delicate transition of power from one generation of leaders to the next. These factors increase the value of using firm action to signal resolve to both Japan and the Chinese public. They also decrease Beijing’s willingness to compromise or be seen as backing down.

See also previous CDT coverage of the Diaoyu Island dispute.