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Lessons learned from Senkaku war games

The Yomiuri Shimbun

By Satoshi Ogawa / Yomiuri Shimbun CorrespondentSUFFOLK, Va. — “An armed group has come ashore on one of the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, and while the Japan Coast Guard and police forces struggle to bring the incident under control, China indicates it will intervene and dispatches a military vessel to waters around the island.”

This fictitious scenario was the premise of a war game involving about 20 participants — including former high-ranking government officials from Japan and the United States, and former members of the Self-Defense Forces — held in late March. The participants were split into three teams representing the governments of Japan, the United States and China, and conducted a table-top exercise to gauge what steps each likely would take. Participants recreated and examined two major cases, and delved into problems that might emerge in handling them.

Organized by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, a research institute in Washington, the event was held at an exclusive facility of major U.S. aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp. in Suffolk, Va. The Yomiuri Shimbun was granted special permission to cover the event.

The China team was played by U.S. participants, including Dennis Wilder, a former National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs.

CASE 1: An armed group comes ashore

About 20 armed members of a Japanese right-wing group have come ashore on Uotsurishima in the Senkaku Islands (1 in the chart). Going online to spread their message, the group claims they are physically occupying the islands for Japan.

One of the event’s scenarios began from this setting. The Japan team decides to deploy three Japan Coast Guard patrol boats (one carrying a helicopter) to transport a 100-strong joint unit of the JCG and the police to the island (2). Given that the armed group members are Japanese, the team agrees not to use the Self-Defense Forces to deal with the situation.

The Japan team’s phone suddenly rings. The caller is the China team. China announces its navy will not take any action for 48 hours, but it cannot wait indefinitely (3). This was a warning that, at some point, China’s navy will initiate action to remove the armed group from the island. The Chinese side suspects the Japanese government “is secretly supporting the armed group,” and moves a military vessel closer to the islands. The Japanese side firmly responds that the Senkaku Islands are Japanese territory, and that this incident is a domestic issue for Japan. The phone call ends with both sides unable to agree.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    James Kendall

Beijing claims the Senkaku Islands are Chinese territory. The China team fears that if it does nothing and allows time to pass, “protests criticizing the government could erupt in China, and the administration could be left in a precarious situation.”

The Japan team decides to quickly arrest the armed group. Though concerned China’s 48-hour warning indicates that “if the flames of nationalism flare up in China, the Chinese government will have no option but to take some action,” it decides that keeping the Self-Defense Forces out of the situation likely will ensure the Chinese military also will not get involved.

China considers sending troops

The JCG helicopter carrying Japanese police officers comes under fire as it flies toward the island. With Japan unable to bring the armed group under control, the clock ticks past 48 hours (4).

The Japan team is shocked. The team had discussed deploying the Ground Self-Defense Force to maintain security, but the JCG representative insisted the situation could be resolved without using the SDF, and the SDF were not called into action. This decision was based on the opinion that the SDF “shouldn’t be sent in against Japanese adversaries,” and wariness that if the SDF was dispatched, China would use this as an excuse to deploy its own military.

Concerned that the situation is dragging on, the U.S. team presses the Japan team to explain that it has absolute proof it can quickly be brought under control. The U.S. side, keeping in mind the possibility the SDF could be deployed, considers the issue with the intention of dispatching U.S. military forces if there is a request from Japan to conduct joint defense operations under Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty (5).

In response, the Japan team opts not to deploy the SDF. Instead, it tells the U.S. team a new plan to regain control of the island by sending a JCG vessel equipped with a 40mm cannon to be fired from sea, even if it kills or injures members of the armed group. The team repeats that this is “an internal matter for Japan” and it does not want any U.S. military support (6).

The U.S. team says its biggest objective is “to avoid war and prevent the situation from deteriorating.” Accordingly, the United States welcomes and supports Japan’s commitment to dealing with the matter through nonmilitary operations. At the same time, the U.S. team calls on China to exercise self-restraint and ensure it does not conduct any military operations (7).

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is secretly directed to move a unit to the Western Pacific in preparation for a contingency, but the U.S. team does not think a crisis would occur in the near future.

China’s unexpected move

The China team’s response was not what Tokyo and Washington expected. Unbending from its position that China “could not make any compromise on territorial issues,” it was considering sending a guided missile destroyer to territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands and sending a special forces unit to the island occupied by the armed group, in case 48 hours had passed and the situation was set to become prolonged (8). China believed the United States would not intervene because the U.S. military had not stepped up pressure on the issue.

Japan team members shared the view that it should refrain from sending in the SDF to prevent the situation from getting worse. However, due to a lack of communication with the China team, China decided Japan did not have sufficient intention or capability to resolve the situation and leaned toward the risky option of deploying Chinese military forces to the Senkaku Islands.

At this point, the war game ended.

CASE 2: JCG patrol boat collides with Chinese govt vessel

Six government ships of the China Coast Guard and more than 20 fishing boats have intruded in Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands. A Japan Coast Guard patrol boat collides with a China Coast Guard vessel, knocking several Chinese crew members into the sea.

The Japan team decides on a plan to dispatch 10 JCG patrol boats to the area and placed top priority on preventing the crew members from coming ashore on the islands. To prepare for the situation possibly worsening, an Aegis-equipped destroyer of the Maritime Self-Defense Force is moved closer to the islands than a Chinese military vessel.

The U.S. team, whose primary priority is “easing tensions and preventing any escalation in the dispute,” calls on both Japan and China to be restrained in their actions.

The China team contacts the United States and insists Japan was the first to take provocative actions. China proposes that Japan and China withdraw their ships simultaneously from the waters around the Senkaku Islands and calls on the United States to serve as a go-between.

The U.S. team welcomes this proposal, which it believes will alleviate tensions in the region, and sounds out Japan about accepting it. The Japan side rejects the proposal out of concern it is a Chinese strategy to weaken Japan’s position regarding possession of the islands.

However, the U.S. side promptly — and strongly — calls on Japan again to simultaneously withdraw its ships when China does. After being pressed to reconsider, the Japan team states it “cannot accept” such a pullout, but decides to drop a plan to send more SDF and JCG vessels to the area, reduce the number of vessels there, and return to the situation of peacetime patrols conducted by the JCG.

The Japan team telephones the U.S. team to convey this plan. It is greeted by cheers and a comment that “outside pressure worked.”

At this point, the war game ended. A member of the Japan team later expressed discontent with what the exercise revealed, saying, “We learned the United States is more worried about avoiding a conflict with China than it is about Japan’s position on possession of the Senkaku Islands.”

(The Yomiuri Shimbun Washington Bureau regional staff Yumi Araki contributed to this report.)

Experience hammers home difficulties

According to a former Japanese government senior official who participated in the event, there had been no previous instance of former high-ranking officials from both Japan and the United States taking part together in war games dealing with a delicate issue such as the Senkaku Islands. After the games finished, some participants spoke of the difficulty they had communicating with the other sides. “I couldn’t understand what they were thinking, and I misread their approach,” one participant said.

James Kendall, a fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and a former U.S. Marine Corps officer, directed the event and said it provided some valuable insights.

“A U.S. team that was very experienced — very senior, and very used to dealing with Japan and Asia — they did not understand the depth of Japanese restrictions and concerns about using the Self Defense Force,” Kendall said. “The controllers were surprised at how determined the Japanese side was to keep the SDF out of the situation. For the China team side, this caused a great deal of mistrust ... So, this was a very good lesson ... But this is mirrored in reality.”Speech

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