China's Warplanes Stalk Japan, Unite Neighbors

On Sunday, the Chinese air force flew more than 40 aircraft through Japan’s Miyako Strait into the Western Pacific Ocean.

The exercise, involving H-6K bombers, Su-30 fighters, and tankers, is the largest of its kind for China through this airspace. Previous exercises involved fewer than 20 planes according to Li Jie, a military analyst based in Beijing.

China flew through the strait, an international passageway that separates the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa, for the first time in May of last year.

China’s Ministry of National Defense, in a statement quoting air force spokesman Shen Jinke, said the planes Sunday flew “systematically” to conduct early warning, sudden assault, and refueling tasks. Shen noted the exercise was to protect China’s “sovereignty and security” and “maintain peaceful development.”

Is that the real purpose of Sunday’s show of force? Chinese military analysts say their country was, in fact, sending a message to Tokyo. “It is a warning from Beijing to Japan: if you are coming to meddle in the South China Sea, then I’m going to flex my muscles at your doorstep,” said Antony Wong Dong, a military expert in Macau, to the South China Morning Post.

Wong also said his country is “eager” to show the region that it is “capable of breaking the first island chain, which is a substantial threat to it both psychologically and in reality.”  The Miyako Strait is one of the critical chokepoints linking China’s coastal waters—in this case the East China Sea—to the Pacific. 

China’s air force is evidently stepping up its presence in the pathways to wider water. The Sunday drill was the second time this month that Chinese military aircraft flew into the Western Pacific. On the 12th, Chinese planes—bombers, fighters, early-warning craft, and tankers—passed over the Bashi Channel, between Taiwan and the Philippines.

The increased Chinese military activity mystifies China historian Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania. As he points out, there is no endgame for Beijing. Yes, China can try to intimidate neighboring states, but as Waldron notes they will soon figure out that the Chinese are not going to shoot.

“Once their targets know they’re not going to shoot, it does not matter how many worthless planes they put up,” he told me a few hours after the provocative exercise near Okinawa. “Nobody is going to surrender just because a hundred planes fly over.”

What Beijing can accomplish, however, is lose friends and influence in the region and beyond. China showed its hand too soon Waldron notes, and now concerned states are forming a loose but powerful coalition. That coalition, even without the US, is stronger than China.

There is perhaps one way to explain China’s huff-and-puff belligerence: Communist Party politics. At the moment, senior generals and admirals of the People’s Liberation Army seem to have gained influence in policymaking and political circles and are implementing their “military diplomacy,” crowding out responsible voices. Because the flag officers could be acting with little or no civilian oversight, China’s external policies look like they are losing coherence, something noted by various analysts for more than a year.

As many have pointed out, in a time of evident turmoil outsiders do not have a good grasp of Chinese politics. That’s true, but one thing is becoming clear. In the Chinese capital only hostile answers are considered politically acceptable.

A decade ago, Chinese foreign policy looked deft. Today, it is almost unrelentingly militant. And, as Waldron notes, there no longer appears to be any point to what Beijing is doing.

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