The Third Dimension of Warfare and Tactical Stability in the Senkaku Islands

Over the last few months, a string of incidents has been taking place around the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims under the name “Diaoyu”[1], on a bidimensional plane. On a number of occasions, Chinese Government vessels[2] have tried to enter Japanese waters, with Tokyo‘s Coast Guard laboring to prevent it by physically interposing its units between them and the shore. Sometimes they have resorted to water cannons to facilitate this, and some collisions have been reported. In addition, Beijing has launched or tolerated some expeditions by “activists” travelling in trawlers or other civilian vessels, with the goal of landing on the Islands. When they have succeeded, Tokyo has expelled them, but not charged them under the criminal law.

Leaving aside the wider political picture, we could say that from a tactical perspective there is a certain stability to the situation. The patterns of behaviour and the ROEs (Rules of Engagement) under which both sides operate are not likely to result in blood being spilled. Neither the Chinese nor the Japanese are employing any lethal weapons. The former seem content, at least for the time being, to test Tokyo’s will to fight, while sending the message that they do not recognize Japanese sovereignty over the area. The latter are sticking to their traditional policy of combining a defence of their sovereignty over the Islands with a refusal to develop their economy and to build any infrastructure. It is a policy which comprises a refusal to deploy ground forces or other government personnel, an option that after some speculation has been confirmed by the new government.

This stability flows from the fact that confrontation takes place on the surface, in two dimensions only, and it is possible for the Japanese Coast Guard’s vessels to physically block the Chinese ships approaching the islands without firing on them. We are thus witnesses to some sort of ballet, with a limited degree of tension and violence among the dancers, and none of them being injured.

A recent development, however, threatens to put an end to this uneasy tactical equilibrium, leading to increased chances of a major incident. We are talking about China’s growing resort not just to ships but to airplanes in her quest to display the disputed nature of sovereignty over the area. The latest example is quite recent, with a Chinese Y-12 twin-turboprop flying near the Islands on 5 January and turning away before Japanese F-15 made contact with it. Less than one month earlier, on 13 December 2012, another maritime surveillance plane had violated Japanese airspace near the Senkaku Islands. After that incident, Zhou Yongsheng, a foreign policy expert at the China Foreign Affairs University, explained that China would “normalise this kind of flight since we already announced our territorial baseline”, adding that this would not involve a large number of flights since “the State Oceanic Administration’s Maritime Surveillance Department had only four aircraft”[3].

Why are these incidents involving aircraft so significant? The reason is that they add a new dimension, a third dimension, to the current tactical standoff. This new dimension changes the rules of the game, since it is no longer possible to prevent the passage of intruders without endangering them. While one can physically stop a ship without sinking it, by placing a vessel between it and its intended destination, this is much more difficult, if at all possible, to achieve with aircraft. How to stop a plane or a helicopter without endangering the craft and its crew? This is a burning question that Japan needs to address and which may demand a major rethink of the current ROEs.

Even more complex for Japan is how to respond to a Chinese decision to employ aircraft not just to question her sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands but to challenge her actual control over them. We are talking about the possibility of an air assault with the objective of inserting a force without firing a shot in anger and causing no Japanese casualties, with a triple goal:

  • Prompting negotiations with Tokyo from a position of strength, with control over the Islands now in Chinese hands.
  • Daring Japan to be the first to spill blood, always a difficult proposition in any democracy.
  • Splitting the US-Japan alliance. Washington’s position is not to take sides in the ultimate sovereignty dispute while stating that the bilateral security treaty applies to the Islands. However, Article V of the treaty states that “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes” [4], thus leaving open two questions: is an attack by a military force not opening fire an “armed attack”? Would a territory cease to be “under the administration of Japan” if effectively occupied by another power?

It is precisely to avoid such an scenario that Governor Sir Rex Hunt made sure the invading forces landing on South Georgia and the Falklands were met with force, so that Buenos Aires could not achieve its ideal outcome, a bloodless invasion. This would have made it much more difficult for the British Government to overcome both domestic and allied and international reluctance to the deployment of a task force. While careful to avoid prolonged combats which would have endangered both the limited forces at his disposal and the civilian population entrusted to him, Sir Rex Hunt started preparing the ground for the liberation of the Falklands right since the opening salvos of the war. He knew that if the Junta managed to grab them in a seemingly peaceful manner, it would be much more difficult for Great Britain to make her case in fora like the United Nations and before friends and allies. This was precisely the Argentine plan, “the guidelines remained that the operation had to be as bloodless as possible and should not excessively impinge upon the life of the population”[5], which was apparent in their choice of “stun grenades not (not) the splinter type”[6] in the assault against Government House. Sir Rex Hunt succeeded in postponing the surrender until some combat had taken place, fortunately without any British casualties but resulting in the death of “Lieutenant-Commander Giachino” and the wounding of two other men, who survived, during the attack on Government House. In addition, an “Argentine marine was slightly wounded by a sliver of metal cutting his hand”[7] in a separate action against enemy armoured troop carriers.

The end of Buenos Aires’ dreams of a bloodless invasion was confirmed by events in South Georgia, where casualties run even higher, with “four Argentinians dead”, two injured, “and one British NCO badly wounded in the arm”, following an intense exchange of fire which featured British marines damaging a helicopter and hitting a corvette “with three 84 mm Carl Gustav anti-tank rockets and more than 1200 rounds of small-arms fire”[8]. Five onboard the corvette were injured[9].

Whereas there were British troops in both the Falklands and South Georgia at the time of the invasion, no Japanese forces are currently on the Senkaku Islands. Althogh the decision is presented by Tokyo as a goodwill gesture designed to ease tensions, it is deeply destabilizing. It may help feed Beijing’s temptation to launch an airborne assault, in the hope that it could succeed without causing any Japanese casualties. The lack of a tripwire, in the form of land units, instead of pushing back the prospects of war, may actually be increasing the chances of open conflict breaking out.

Concerning such an airborne assault, China could either employ helicopters from nearby bases, warships, or other government vessels, or launch them from converted trawlers or merchantment, equipped with hangars. This may allow them to approach the Islands pretending to be carrying activists, although on the other hand the necessary work may be detected in advance. Helicopters are highly vulnerable, even to small arms fire, so another possibility may be to employ rigid raiders at night[10].

Conclusion: the lack of Japanese ground troops and China’s employment of aircraft threaten to increase the chances of war breaking out.

To sum it up, the two-dimensional game where Chinese vessels approach the Senkaku Islands and are blocked by the Japanese Coast Guard, without loss of life, is giving way to a much more dangerous scenario. A new scenario where Chinese planes violate Japanese air space, and there is no simple way of keeping them away without endangering them if they refuse to turn back. This third dimension, coupled with Tokyo’s reluctance to field ground troops, may also be deeply destabilizing in another way: it may prompt Beijing to launch an airborne assault designed to bloodlessly insert troops on the disputed islands, with a view to forcing negotiations from a position of strenght and driving a wedge between Washington and Tokyo.

By Alex Calvo, MA Student, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

[1] This entry is only concerned with the tactics employed by the two sides around the Senkaku Islands, and not with the underlying dispute or wider relations between the two countries. It should be noted, however, that Beijing supports Argentine claims on the Falklands and may deliver weapons and political and legal cover (among others at the UN Security Council) in exchange for the natural resources around them, and therefore it would be contrary to the British national interest to see the Senkaku Islands fall.

[2] Beijing has not employed Navy units to date, although she is transferring some destroyers to her State Oceanic Administration. For many observers, this is a sign of restraint, however the true reason may be a wish to portray the waters around the Senkaku Islands as Chinese territorial waters, therefore the province of non-military agencies rather than the Navy.

[3] Mure Dickie, “China flies aircraft over disputed islands”, The Financial Times, 13 December 2012, available at


[5] Lawrence FREEDMAN and Virginia GAMBA-STONEHOUSE, Signals of War: the Falklands Conflict of 1982, (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), p. 113

[6] Noted by Governor Sir Rex Hunt in his telegram providing an account of his final hours at Government House. Peter BILES “Falklands telegrams reveal UK response to invasion”, BBC News, 28 December 2012, available at . The author would like to thank Jonathan D’Hooghe, a fellow postgraduate student at Birmingham University, for having pointed out this source to him.

[7] Martin MIDDLEBROOK, The Argentine Fight for the Falklands, (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2009), pp. 37 and 39.

[8] Max HASTINGS and Simon JENKINS, The Battle for the Falklands, (London: Pan Books, 2010), p. 94.

[9] Lawrence FREEDMAN and Virginia GAMBA-STONEHOUSE, Signals of War: the Falklands Conflict of 1982, (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), p. 120.

[10] This paragraph is based on a private communication by the author from Squadron Leader M D Green BSc RAF (Rtd), a fellow WWII MA student at Birmingham University.


9 responses to “The Third Dimension of Warfare and Tactical Stability in the Senkaku Islands

  1. Good read, though perhaps another element worth considering it the souring of relations between China and other Southeast Asian nations like Vietnam and the Philippines over similar territorial disputes. Would a Chinese military take over of the Senkaku Islands rally other nations against Chinese expansion or would nations like Vietnam simply accept Chinese aggression and take a path of appeasement? Southeast Asian foreign relations are certainly a complex and exceedingly intriguing.

  2. Robert, thank you very much for your comment and interest in the article. The element you mention is indeed most important, and as you rightly say complex. I don’t see Vietnam falling for the appeasement trap, but coordinating the efforts by different countries is not that easy, as past efforts by Japan have made clear. Right now I am reading about the latest talks between Tokyo and Manila. Alex.

  3. I, too, doubt Vietnam takes anything but a hardline stance against Chinese expansion. What fascinates me the most about current Vietnam foreign relations is that nation’s rekindling of ties with former foe the United States. Much of Vietnam’s modern history showcases the Vietnamese playing the Chinese and Americans against one another, and it looks like something similar is occurring right now.


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