Japan urges Europe to speak out against China’s military expansion

Japan has urged European countries to speak out against China’s aggression, warning that the international community must bolster deterrence efforts against Beijing’s military and territorial expansion amid a growing risk of a hot conflict.

In an interview with the Guardian, Japan’s defence minister, Nobuo Kishi, gesê Sjina had become increasingly powerful politically, economically and militarily and was “attempting to use its power to unilaterally change the status quo in the East and South China Seas”, which are crucial to global shipping and include waters and islands claimed by several other nations.

Tokyo had “strong concerns in regards to the safety and security of not only our own country and the region but for the global community”, Kishi warned. “China is strengthening its military power both in terms of quantity and quality, and rapidly improving its operational capability," hy het gesê.

Kishi’s comments are a strong signal of the rising international concern over China’s military ambitions in disputed regions like the South and East China Sea, the Indian border, en in particular Taiwan. His remarks were echoed by senior figures on the island, with Taiwan’s former head of navy and deputy defence minister also warning that more deterrence was needed.

With China ratcheting up military activity in the region, experts and global military figures have also warned that small confrontations or maritime accidents could quickly escalate into a full-blown conflict.

The comments come amid fresh tensions over a new trilateral security partnership, under which the US and UK will give Australia the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines. The alliance is widely understood to be aimed at countering China.

Kishi, who spoke to the Guardian before the new security pact was revealed, gesê Japan had gained the understanding and cooperation of many countries, but far more was needed to counter Beijing. He said the European parliament, as well as the UK, Frankryk, Germany and the Netherlands, had shown interest in supporting 'a free and open Indo-Pacific”, but “it is important for many countries to speak out about the situation, and this itself will become a deterrent”.

According to figures released by Japan’s coast guard, the number of “incursions” by Chinese vessels into disputed areas has increased dramatically since 2012. Earlier this year Chinese vessels were seen near the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands for a record 157 days in a row, and Japan recently lodged formal protest over a flotilla of seven Chinese coast guard vessels – the largest since 2016 – patrolling the contiguous zone on 30 Augustus.

Japan has become significantly more vocal in recent months, calling for greater engagement with the US and other parties in resisting what they call Chinese expansionism. Hierdie week, the outgoing prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, travels to Washington to attend an in-person summit of Quad with the US, India and Australia.

The US – which is a key player in the geopolitical situation – has increased its presence in the region, issuing warnings to China and pledging support to those targeted. The UK has also announced a permanent military presence in the Indo-Pacific and recently led a carrier strike group – including Britain’s largest warship and Dutch and US assets – to participate in joint exercises.

In April, the EU jointly declared tensions in the South China Sea were threatening regional peace and stability, while French warships have participated in joint exercises with the US and Japan, and Germany recently sent a warship for the first time in two decades.

A new Indo-Pacific strategy report last week showed China to be at the centre of EU concerns, but that the bloc was taking a cautious approach. The document warned regional tensions “may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity”, but urged “multifaceted engagement” with China.

Kishi said he had met recently with several foreign counterparts, including the UK, and “shared that what is happening in the East China Sea and the South China Sea is not only a regional problem, but at the same time also a problem for the international community”.

“I expressed that this is also something happening that is relevant to Europe.”

Critics say it’s difficult to gauge exactly how much China is spending every year on defence as they question Beijing’s official figures. But estimates show it to be the world’s second highest spender – after the US – with a 2020 budget more than three times that of the UK, and four times the budgets of Germany, Frankryk, and Japan.

It has increased the budget of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) annually for the past two decades, building up coastal infrastructure and other capabilities. Recent reports have also said China is constructing hundreds of missile silos in its interior deserts, en converting passenger ferries for military amphibious lift – a key defence capability in which analysts had until now said China was well behind.

China says it pursues a military policy that is “defensive in nature”. “We develop military capacity out of self-defence purpose. We do not intend to and will not pose a threat to any country,” spokesperson Hua Chunying said.

'[Maar] in vergelyking met 20, 10, or even five years ago, Beijing just has more tools – missiles, warplanes, aircraft carriers, etcetera,” said Carl Minzner, a senior fellow of China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “It makes it more possible for Chinese officials to attempt to slowly push the envelope and essentially seize space.”

The PLA has increased military drills and intimidatory sorties into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, clashed with Indian troops in border regions, en amended coast guard law to justify weapon use against other vessels. It has ignored a 2016 ruling by The Hague that there is no legal basis to its South China Sea claims, and continued building artificial geographic structures, inflaming tensions with other claimants. Earlier this year it sent hundreds of fishing boats carrying alleged militia to Philippines-claimed islands.

“These Chinese military trends, including the rapid strengthening, increasing activity and expansion of its operational capabilities, combined with the lack of transparency regarding its defence policy and military capabilities, have become a strong security concern for Japan, the region and the international community,” warned Kishi.

The PLA and Chinese coastguard frequently enter the waters around the disputed Senkakus - or Diaoyu islands in Chinese – and into Japan’s air defence identification zone, prompting the immediate scrambling of Japanese jets. Kishi said Japan would take “all measures against airspace incursions in accordance with international law and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces Act”, and that the “incursions” around the Senkakus were “very regrettable” violations of international law which “must not be tolerated”.

He declined to say what would prompt a tougher response from Japan. “We have frankly communicated our concerns to China, and will continue to conduct such communication as much as possible.”

Frank communication doesn’t appear to be working, critics say. China has ratcheted up its grey zone tactics: coercive activities which deliberately don’t meet the threshold for an act of war, but serve to exhaust and intimidate the other party.

Kishi warned that these acts pose the greatest risk of sparking a hot war.

“It is generally acknowledged that grey zone activities have the risk of leading to a larger military conflict," hy het gesê. “A calm yet robust stance is required in order to prevent such a situation.”

Lowy Institute China analyst Natasha Kassam said China’s aggression was the key factor, and its destabilising actions – routinely met with US or Taiwan responses – increased the risk of an accident.

“It feels much more tense now than one or two years ago," sy het gese.

Adm Lee Hsi-ming, Taiwan’s former head of navy and deputy defence minister, said while the South and East China Seas and the Indian border were major Chinese concerns, Taiwan was of “core interest” to Beijing, as the final piece of Xi Jinping’s dream of national rejuvenation.

Beijing has pledged to take Taiwan – which it claims as a Chinese province – by force if necessary. The government of Taiwan says it seeks no conflict. Its president, Tsai Ing-wen, said in 2020 that “we don’t need to declare ourselves an independent state. We are an independent country already.” The potential circumstances and timing is vociferously debated, but there is general consensus that the risk of a Chinese move on Taiwan is the highest in decades.

In preparation, Taiwan has increased its weapons purchases from the US and lobbied for international alliances. It conducts annual military drills to practise skills that would be needed in the event of an attack by China.

Lee, who advocates for Taiwan to improve its asymmetric self-defence system rather than buy big weapons, said allies like Japan and the US served primarily as deterrence rather than tactical support, but echoed comments by Kishi that more deterrence was needed.

“There are two factors for war happening: capability and intention,” said Lee. “When they have both, we have a problem.”

Much of Japan’s desire for more support from western allies can be linked to Taiwan’s fate. Japan’s deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, told a fundraising event in July that a Chinese attack on Taiwan posed an existential risk to Japan, whose southern islands neighbour Taiwan’s northern tip.

“China is rapidly strengthening its military power, and the military balance between China and Taiwan is on the whole shifting in favour of China, with the gap widening every year,” said Nishi. “It is possible that the situation will further intensify, and therefore a close watch must be kept.”

Giulio Pugliese, a lecturer at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, said it was unrealistic to expect the EU to use finite military resources to balance China’s power in the region, and the sending of ships and aircraft and participation in drills was to “make a point”. Other collective efforts, such as joint statements, demonstrate “there’s a broad coalition of distant states with active stakes in regional stability and the preservation of the international law of the sea”, hy het gesê.

Drew Thompson, a former US defence department official responsible for managing bilateral relations with China and Taiwan, said all governments should be asking themselves: “What are you doing to raise the cost to Beijing for pulling the trigger?”

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