Monday

September 25th, 2017

Declassified

China's 'little green boats' have Japan on alert

Eli Lake

By Eli Lake Bloomberg View

Published Sept. 1, 2016

In early August, Japan's Coast Guard witnessed an unconventional Chinese assault on its territorial waters. According to Japanese officials I met with last week, at least 300 Chinese "fishing vessels" began incursions into the exclusive economic zone around the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, disputed territory administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan as well.

Japan has seen similar probing activities for years. But in August, the Chinese escalated. There were far more boats than before, and the Chinese sent armed coast guard vessels to accompany these "fishermen."

This may sound fairly benign compared to the shooting wars in Ukraine and Syria. But for Japan, the matter could not be more serious. Its military assesses that many of these sailors are really Chinese irregular militias, similar to the non-uniformed "little green men" that Russia has sent to eastern Ukraine to stir up separatist sentiment. Call them "little green boats."

Nonetheless, Japan has gone out of its way not to take China's bait and respond militarily. Instead, it sends its own coast guard to escort the boats and inform them of their trespassing over loudspeakers. Diplomatically, Japanese officials have taken to lodging angry, formal complaints in late-night phone calls to their Chinese counterparts, a tactic usually favored by Beijing's envoys.

There are three reasons Americans should watch the rising tensions in the East China Sea carefully. To start, President Barack Obama in 2014 said publicly the U.S. was bound by its treaty with Japan to come to Japan's aid if the Senkakus were ever attacked. In this sense, the islands have the same status as the Baltic states in the NATO alliance. Unlike the red line in Syria that Obama ended up backing away from in 2013, the U.S. would be violating a formal agreement if it did not come to the defense of the Senkaku Islands.

Second, the Chinese maneuvers around what they call the Diaoyu Islands appear to be part of its larger strategy to gain control of the shipping lanes of the East China Sea, similar to its construction of artificial islands in the adjacent South China Sea. Since the naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote his treatise "The Influence of Sea Power on History" in 1890, the U.S. has considered the defense of free navigation on the high seas to be a pillar of its national security.


Finally, the Chinese activity near the Senkakus is another example of the rise of ambiguous warfare, where a state uses irregular forces or nonmilitary means to advance its territorial goals. Kunihiko Miyake, president of the Tokyo-based Foreign Policy Institute for Global Studies, told me last week that China was trying to "win the islands without fighting." He added: "They know if they fought us, this would be a fight with us and the United States. That's why they will not physically challenge us. They will use fishing boats with their unofficial maritime militias, but they don't send military vessels yet."

Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who was in my delegation of journalists and policy experts last week in Japan, told me, "What the Chinese military is doing in the South China Sea and the East China Sea resembles in some ways the approach of the Russian military in its incrementalism, in its ambiguity about whether it's civilian or military, and in its challenge to the international community."

This development ought to worry the current and next administrations. When Russia's little green men swiftly took control of Crimea in 2014, it caught many in the Obama administration off guard. The Japanese are warning the U.S. not to make the same mistake with China's little green boats.

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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about politics and foreign affairs. He was previously the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast. Lake also covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI, and was a contributing editor at the New Republic.

Previously:
08/31/16: Obama's CIA director wants to stick around for Clinton
08/29/16: Here's what Kerry should do to divide Iran and Russia
08/17/16: U.S. special ops in Syria are told, 'Don't get shot'
08/10/16: Why #NeverTrump movement is also #NeverGaryJohnson
08/04/16: Why Russia keeps getting away with hacking the U.S.
07/19/16: When clues nearly led the FBI to America's favorite Saudi
07/12/16: General Flynn outlines an all-out war on terror
07/11/16: The Palestinian incentive program for killing Jews
06/28/16: Obama's Iran policy is at odds with Hillary's message
06/22/16: Is Israel a pariah? Not according to its powerful new friends
06/10/16: U.S. taxpayers are funding Iran's military expansion
06/08/16: It's for good reason that aiding Kurds in and around Iraq is among the only bipartisan goals on America's foreign policy agenda
06/07/16: Why the U.S. Needs Russian Rocket Engines to Spy on Russia
06/06/16: Hillary Targets the 'Blame America First' Republicans
06/02/16: Hollywood and Korean pop could bring down Kim Jong-Un
05/25/16: REVEALED: The secret history of the Iran-deal 'echo chamber'
04/27/16: Pakistan has a China connection to nuclear trouble
04/19/16: Obama still not finished reinvigorating Iran
04/08/16: 'Panama Papers' could help go after Assad's wealth
04/05/16: Fascist or con man: The duelling Trump narratives
03/23/16: Hillary's convenient evolution on Israel
03/21/16: Cruz assembles an unlikely team of foreign-policy rivals
03/07/16: Trump turns out to be a politician, and not a good one
02/17/16: As Obama urges Congress, military says it can't send Gitmo detainees to U.S.
02/06/16: Hillary's security clearance is under scrutiny
12/23/15: Iran deal restricts U.S. more than Congress knew
12/11/15: Iranian troops abandoning Assad, Western officials say
12/09/15: Obama team weighs cyberwar options on Islamic State
11/20/15: After the Paris attacks, Bush whiffs on his war speech
11/18/15: What Obama's incoherence and anger at post-Paris press conference reveals
11/17/15: Dems begin to embrace 'regime change' --- again
11/13/15: Hurt feelings, unsafe spaces and other Israeli crimes
11/09/15: Egyptian leader seen as target of jihad
11/04/15: How Ahmad Chalabi survived his war to free Iraq
10/26/15: Now we know: AIPAC and the Dems who supported Iran deal
10/21/15: GOPers at Hilary hearing taking cues from Dems?


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