For Asia Times www.atimes.com
By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI – Ever since the Japanese government this month signed a deal with a private landowner to purchase and nationalize the East China Sea’s Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu Islands in Chinese), which are controlled by Japan but subject to competing claims by Beijing and Taipei, the waters in the area have been witnessing a rapid buildup of semi-military forces belonging to the three powers that have hugely complex relationships with one another.
While even the most seasoned observers on Asian security affairs have difficulties imagining the consequences the first shot fired would bring about, it is obvious that the more warriors and military hardware are ordered into the theater by leaders who want to save
face at home, the higher the likelihood of carnage.
On September 7, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou sought to underscore Taiwan’s sovereignty over the disputed islands by a two-hour whirlwind visit to Pengjia Islet, which at 140 kilometers is the closest Taiwan-controlled soil gets to the Senkakus. On Pengjia, the Beijing-friendly Taiwanese leader slammed the Japanese government’s plan to nationalize the islands as an “invasion” of territory of Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name), and while shaking his fist, he had a handful of ROC Air Force Mirage 2000 and F-16 fighter jets thundering over the scene.
A few days later, he ordered two coast guard ships armed with 20-millimeter cannons and 50mm guns to the waters surrounding the Senkakus to “protect” Taiwanese fishing boats, which in the past have often been chased away by the Japanese coast guard when fishing there.
This, of course, implies that Taiwan’s coast guard vessels will in future interfere at gunpoint whenever their Japanese counterparts attempt to expel what they perceive as foreign poachers. As Taipei orchestrated Ma’s Pengjia trip as well as the coast guard vessels’ dispatch with as much martial fanfare as possible, and Taiwanese patrol operations near the Senkakus are now conducted around the clock, it not only makes the vicinity of the contested islands a more crowded place, but also sets the bar higher. Any future failure by the Taiwanese coast guard to shield the fishermen from Japanese action will draw flak in Taiwan’s domestic politics to the detriment of the ruling party, Ma’s Kuomintang.
All signs are that the Taiwanese government will want to prevent such an outcome by putting additional pressure on its coast guard, thereby creating a vicious cycle.
A disaster is undoudtedly brewing on the mainland Chinese side. The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that nearly 2,000 Chinese fishing boats have left port this week sailing for the Diaoyu waters. This will surely make the situation even less controllable. Chinese media proclaims that over 1,000 Chinese fishing boats catch 150,000 tonnes of fish annually in the disputed waters – and they have all the right to continue doing so, as, according to the usual Chinese phraseology, the “Diaoyu Islands and their affiliated islets have been China’s inherent territory since ancient times”.
Before and upon Tokyo’s purchase of the Senkakus, violent protests broke out in many Chinese cities against the Japanese, who are generally disliked in China as they were the country’s brutal occupiers in World War II. Meanwhile Beijing, desperate not to be seen as weak and cowardly at home when taking on Tokyo, acted by ordering six ocean surveillance ships to intrude into Japanese waters in a high-profile move that sent chills down spines around the globe.
It is not clear whether Japan has also raised the stakes since by dispatching more personnel and hardware into the scene. But given its two competitors’ apparent determination, it is a near-certain outcome.
When addressing international audiences, government officials and affiliated observers from all three sides – unlike when they are firing up their respective home crowds – tend to point out in a bid to demonstrate moral high ground that their military still plays no direct role in the events. In Japan’s and Taiwan’s cases, the coast guard is a civilian law-enforcement agency under the cabinet, as opposed to an organization that steams ahead under navy command, while the mainland’s patrol boats so far involved belong to the paramilitary China Marine Surveillance under the auspices of the State Oceanic Administration, not the PLA Navy.
However, according to experts interviewed by Asia Times Online, this does not make the situation much safer. The risk of minor combat accidentally erupting looms ever larger over the Senkakus, they say.
“These maneuvers are all threats that leave something to chance,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a US-based think-tank. “But that’s the whole point: if there was no risk of accidental escalation, no one would be paying attention.”
When asked about his take on concrete combat scenarios, Pike sees only one that’s thinkable. According to him, there will be no combat between Japan and Taiwan. He also dismissed a notion popular with Taiwanese academics lately, according to which if Taiwanese vessels were to come under Japanese attack Beijing would jump on the opportunity to protect the Taiwanese forces to promote its sacred aim of cross-strait unification.
Nor is there a possibility that Taiwan and the mainland could combat each other, according to Pike, as “everyone is making too much money”.
But if mainland China were to fire at Japan first, things could get very interesting very fast, he said. “It is important to remember that this is the one disputed island where the US does have a position on the competing claims – the US [which is in a defense alliance with Japan] is clear that Senkaku is Japanese.”
James Holmes, an associate professor at the US Naval War College, expounded more on the dangers of having three governments fielding semi-military forces.
“Crowding the seas and skies with assets from multiple countries, and from multiple services within each country, does make for a volatile situation,” he said. “Not only does it increase the likelihood of something touching off a small-scale confrontation, but it also makes it difficult for each government to coordinate its response effectively.”
Holmes noted that coast guards have different bureaucratic cultures from navies, and are still more different from air forces and other bodies that may be present around the Senkakus. “Organizations may respond quite differently to the same circumstances. The chances of a fragmented response rise in times of stress, and this in turn increases the chances of miscalculation and escalation.”
He concluded by drawing a historic parallel that is intriguing, indeed.
“The situation reminds me a bit of the  Cuban missile crisis. Thankfully, the stakes are smaller and the weapons deployed create a lot smaller bang,” Holmes said. “But here again, fairly confined waters were flooded with naval vessels and merchantmen. The contenders’ rules of engagement were unclear, heightening the uncertainty. Some truly hair-raising things occurred. We hear echoes of that in the East China Sea.”
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)
This is the same article as picked up on interpreted by yahoo China:
【环球网综合报道】2012年9月19日，“亚洲时报在线”网站刊登严斯-卡斯特纳（Jens Kastner）撰写题为《乱局困扰中国东海》 （Uneasy crowd control in East China Sea）的文章，该文分析了中国大陆、台湾地区和日本在钓鱼岛争端中的最新举动，列举了美国两名军事评论家的观点，认为中国东海问题如不克制，有升级为小规模军事冲突的可能。现将文章主要内容编译如下：
美国海军大学（Naval War College）副教授詹姆斯-霍姆斯（James Holmes）也分析三方部署准军事力量面临的危险。“出动海空多军种力量将激发紧张局面，不仅有爆发小规模冲突的可能，而且各方政府难以有效应对”。海岸警卫队具有政府机构的背景，不同于海军、空军等出现在钓鱼岛海域的军事力量，政府间的反应与军队大不相同，当对抗在压力下局部升级，误判和失控的可能也随之增加。