On Friday, Japanese media reported that the US and Japan will not hold a naval drill, scheduled for November 5th to 16th. The exercise, a rehearsal of the recapture of an island, was to take place on Irisunajima, an island in the Okinawa prefecture. Jiji Press, a Japanese news agency, stated the cancellation “reflects the opinion of the prime minister’s office.”
Tokyo reportedly pulled out of the drill to avoid further angering Beijing, which had been behind nationwide anti-Japanese protests—some of them violent riots—that shook Chinese cities last month. Beijing, through its aggressive actions, is challenging Tokyo’s sovereignty over islands it labels the Diaoyus. The Japanese, who actually administer these barren outcroppings in the East China Sea, call them the Senkakus. The US takes no position on which nation has sovereignty but has a treaty obligation to help Japan defend them because they are in fact under Tokyo’s control.
Japan, like many nations on China’s periphery, is concerned about Beijing’s new assertiveness and is willing to go to some lengths to avoid irritating the Chinese. Unfortunately, Beijing cannot be placated these days, and the Japanese government should learn from the Pentagon’s recent mistakes.
The Obama administration confronted a similar situation after the sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010. A North Korean submarine torpedoed the South Korean frigate, and 46 sailors died in that horrific and unprovoked surprise attack.
To deter Pyongyang, Washington and Seoul planned to send the mighty George Washington carrier strike group into the Yellow Sea as a show of resolve. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in July of that year, the US was going to send a “clear message” to the North Koreans.
Washington did send a message—but not the one intended. China, which borders the Yellow Sea, vehemently objected to the presence of the carrier so close to its shores. In the face of increasing threats, the Pentagon backed down and did not send the George Washington. In early September, it pledged to do so sometime in the indefinite future.
The idea was that the postponement would placate China. The tactic, however, backfired, only emboldening Beijing hard-liners.
The Chinese most likely believe their intimidation worked—and their North Korean allies saw a green light to commit another act of war. That November, the Kim regime shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing four South Koreans, two of them civilians.
Now, two years later, we are witnessing the same dynamic. Beijing has just successfully intimidated Japan.
And what is the China military doing? It has just concluded a naval exercise of its own. The drill included 11 vessels from the Chinese navy’s Donghai Fleet, the fisheries administration, and the marine surveillance agency, along with eight aircraft, including jet fighters. More than 1,000 personnel, both military and civilian, participated.
China is backing its expansive territorial claims by preparing for a sea battle, while Japan seems squeamish. The George Washington strike group is cruising in nearby waters, which means the task of opposing Chinese adventurism may end up being left to America.