Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.02.07

First Real Threat since 1945

JBPress on February 07, 2014

As the Mamas and the Papas sang in the 1960s, you'd be safe and warm if you were in L.A. Indeed, it was sunny and peaceful last week in Southern California, while it looked dark and chilly on the other side of the Pacific, as the president of the Philippines desperately solicited international support in resisting China's assertive claims to waters near his island nation.

In his interview with the New York Times this week, President Benigno Aquino reportedly said, "Like Czechoslovakia, the Philippines faces demands to surrender territory piecemeal to a much stronger foreign power and needs more robust foreign support for the rule of international law if it is to resist." None of his predecessors had referred more clearly to the problem with China.

He went on to say that, "the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II" but "appeasement did not work in 1938" and "within six months of the surrender of the Sudetenland, Germany occupied most of the rest of Czechoslovakia." The Philippines is not alone because her neighbors, including Japan, also face similar territorial claims by China.

While armed conflicts in the South China Sea over islands between China and Vietnam or the Philippines date back to the 1970s, it was only at the end of 2008 that Chinese official vessels first intruded upon the territorial waters of Japan's Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Since then, the Chinese maritime authorities have intensified their assertive activities near the Senkakus.

In September 2010, for example, a Chinese trawler operating inside Japanese territorial waters collided with two Japanese Coast Guard patrol vessels. Since then, the Chinese maritime authorities have been continuously sending official vessels to violate the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands, at first on a monthly basis and eventually weekly.

Do you remember the Steven Spielberg movie 1941, where a Japanese submarine attacked Los Angeles? Although that was only a movie, for Filipinos, Vietnamese and Japanese there is the real danger that China is trying to change the status quo by force. It might be very difficult for ordinary Californians living on the sunny and peaceful side of the Pacific to even imagine this.

What if a country claims territorial sovereignty over Guam, for example, asserting that she first found the island and then the U.S. stole it from her in the 19th century, by sending her official vessels to Guam's territorial waters? Or what if she asserts that Hawaii used to be hers and flies fighter jets over Waikiki? For Japan, the magnitude of China's actions is just as serious.

This is the first time since August 15, 1945 that the ordinary Japanese people feel that their territorial waters and air space are physically threatened by a foreign power. Even during the Cold War, although Soviet bombers flew around the Japanese archipelago, no Soviet ships threatened Japan except in and around the Northern Territories, which are still occupied by the Russians.

The danger is becoming acute. For example, in January 2013, People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy vessels 'painted' a helicopter and a destroyer of Japan's Maritime Self Defense Force with fire-control radar in two separate incidents. These lock-ons were reportedly ordered by the captains of the Chinese Naval vessels on their own authority, although China's Defense Ministry denied these reports.

What is more worrisome and shocking is that the Chinese government might have been testing the will of the U.S. President and Japanese Prime Minister. On April 1, 2001, for example, a PLA Navy fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 off the coast of Hainan Island in the South China Sea.

In March 2009, the Impeccable, a U.S. Navy ocean surveillance ship, was periodically harassed by a series of Chinese PLA actions in the South China Sea. It is no coincidence that these two incidents occurred just a few months after the inaugurations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively. China may well have been testing the new US President.

The January 2013 radar 'paintings' of the Japanese chopper and ship might also have been a test for Mr. Shinzo Abe as the new Prime Minister of Japan. If that is the case, the threat to Japan may be as real and serious as to the United States. At minimum, the Philippines, Japan, the United States and probably Vietnam face the same type of threat in the South and East China Seas.