Behind the Scenes / Prepare for Senkaku gray zone scenario

Courtesy of Japan Coast Guard

A China Coast Guard vessel, right, sails in waters around the Senkaku Islands, with a patrol ship from the Japan Coast Guard running abreast in January 2017.

By Tatsuya Fukumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterThe Nakasone Yasuhiro Peace Institute (NPI), whose chairman is former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, has released a proposal for enhancing capabilities to deal with “gray zone situations” (see below) that are not immediately recognized as armed attacks. Addressing concerns over repeated incursions into Japan’s territorial waters by China in the area around the Senkaku Islands in Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture, the proposal expresses a sense of urgency over the current situation and urges the government to take action.

Sense of urgency

The proposal, compiled by the members of the NPI’s gray zone situation committee chaired by former Chief of Staff Takashi Saito, was announced at a symposium held at the Defense Ministry’s National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS) in Tokyo on June 26.

A typical gray zone scenario as imagined in Japan involves a large number of Chinese fishing vessels entering Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands and pushing past Japan Coast Guard (JCG) vessels to reach land, after which armed fishermen on the vessels occupy the islands. There is concern that the JCG or police authorities might not be able to cope with the situation.

When the government enacted the security-related laws in 2015, a legal framework to grant territorial security rights to the Self-Defense Forces in peacetime was discussed, but was ultimately not implemented.

Underlying the proposal is a sense of urgency among experts.

Ken Sato, president of the NPI and former administrative vice defense minister, noted issues related to territorial security:

-- If there is an event in which the JCG is unable to respond to a situation, and the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) mobilizes for police action after the government issues an order for maritime security operations (see below), it will be utilized by the opposing nation as a pretext for military mobilization.

-- Concerns exist over whether the “relay system” alone, in which the JCG hands over to the MSDF, will be effective.

Since July, the China Coast Guard (CCG), which has deployed Chinese government vessels in the East and South China seas, has been incorporated into the People’s Armed Police Force directly under the command of the Central Military Commission. The CCG is the equivalent of the JCG.

Masafumi Iida, a senior researcher at the NIDS, raised the alarm at the symposium, saying: “It’s possible that CCG ships may appear to be [civilian] Chinese government vessels, but in reality they belong to the military. There is a possibility that China disguising military vessels as government vessels could be an attempt to change the status quo. An extremely significant change is beginning to take place.”

Measures against drones

Among the 10-item proposal, of particular importance is the fifth item -- the control of the MSDF by the JCG. This item stipulates that when the government issues an order for maritime security operations, “it would be appropriate for the JCG to take control as it is well versed in maritime policing operations, and for the MSDF to complement areas in which capabilities of the JCG are lacking.”

With the stipulation in mind, the proposal suggested a method by which the JCG and the MSDF form a composite team that would exercise control aboard MSDF vessels.

The proposal also addressed the enhancement of the power to utilize arms to prevent illegal landings by armed groups.

The seventh item proposes a revision of the Japan Coast Guard Law that would allow MSDF vessels ordered to perform maritime security operations and JCG patrol boats engaged in legal enforcement activities to deter landings of the opposing party by firing at the adversary, even if such action does not strictly fall under self-defense activities.

In May 2017, what appeared to be a drone was confirmed flying around the Senkaku Islands. The Defense Ministry scrambled two Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) F-15 fighter aircrafts in response to an “airspace violation committed by China.”

Considering such situations, the 10th item suggests allowing the JCG and the MSDF to take measures to deal with airspace violations, which is currently undertaken by the ASDF alone, in cases of airspace violations by helicopters taking off from naval vessels of other countries, as well as unmanned aircraft and drones.

Objections, caution

The content of the proposal appears to leave room for objections.

With regard to the fifth item, one question is whether JCG officers can actually make use of MSDF crew and vessels, which significantly differ in weapons capabilities from JCG patrol boats. In addition, while the division of roles between the JCG and the MSDF is important, there is the question of whether the Prime Minister’s Office or other central government offices could take command of the combined team more coolly without delegating the command to the front line.

There were also cautious opinions about the content of the proposal at the symposium.

However, China’s “salami-slicing strategy,” which builds up small changes over a long period to make the changes faits accomplis, will likely continue.

With regard to the Senkaku Islands, “The thickness of the salami that China can slice will depend on how the Japanese side responds to the issue,” Iida said.

How will Japan appropriately deal with gray zone situations to protect its national interests and avoid armed conflict?

The government should consider it strategically from the legal and diplomatic perspectives, while also taking the proposal into account.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 30, 2018)

--Gray zone situation

This term refers to an ambiguous infringement act by a foreign country that is not recognized as armed attack but raises tensions above the peacetime level. An armed attack is defined by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau as “the exercise of organized and planned military force by the intent of a state.” When actions fall short of this standard, the Self-Defense Forces are unable to exercise military force to counterattack, and are not covered by Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

--Maritime security operations

This term refers to the Self-Defense Forces exercising their right to take police action on behalf of the Japan Coast Guard to maintain maritime security. This is distinguished from “defense operations” in which the exercise of military force is allowed based on the right of self-defense, such as in the case of an armed attack against Japan. For maritime security operations, the use of arms is more restricted.Speech

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