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Conflict Prevention and Confidence Building Measures between Japan and China

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by Vice Admiral (Ret.) Fumio Ota Ph.D.
Published on January 5th, 2009

Chinese leaders always say to Japanese leaders that Japan should look at history as a mirror. It means that Japan should not forget her brutal actions against China during the Sino-Japanese conflict in the late 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s. However, since this period Japan and China have changed considerably. Today, the China is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and the Japan is democracy.  While history should not be forgotten, we must also judge a country by its current actions.

A recent survey of world public opinion from 2005 to 2007 found that Japan is the country most widely viewed as having a positive influence[1], which is helped by the fact that Japan  has never used military power as a means for settling international conflicts after 1945. Since the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, the frequency of its use of military forces reaches the double digits.  On average, China has used military power every several years. In all cases, except for its support of North Vietnam’s war against South Vietnam, China has used force preemptively. China attacked the opponent first after careful preparation, whereas the opponent suffered from a surprise attack.


It is my conclusion from the above facts; the threshold for Chinese use of force is very low.

1. Recent Chinese Maritime Expansion

It has been my observation that China has demonstrated a pattern in its maritime expansion.  At a strategic level it appears that China always fills the power vacuum created by a retreating Super Power.  While the U.S. was retreating from Vietnam, China advanced to the Paracel Islands in 1974. Following the reduction in Soviet Navy ships in Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay starting in 1984, China advanced to west of the Spratly Islands from 1987 to 1988.  After the 1991 U.S. withdrawal from Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base in the Philippines, China advanced east of the Spratly Islands and occupied Philippines-claimed Mischief Reef in 1994.  From these precedents, it should be expected that China will invade the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands if the U.S. retreats from Okinawa. As for the Senkaku Islands, in 1969 the Economic Commission for Asia and Far East (ECAFE) in the United Nations announced the possibility of submerged energy resources near the Senkaku Islands.  Afterwards, the People's Republic of China claimed territorial rights over the Senkaku Islands in December 1970 and the Republic of China also claimed them in June 1971.[2]

The tactical pattern for China’s maritime territorial encroachment is as follows. First, China declares territorial rights. Some examples are the Territorial Water Law of 1992 in which China claimed the Senkaku Islands as her territory and the Anti-Secession Law over Taiwan in 2005. Second, China then usually conducts maritime surveillance in the area where she declared her territorial rights. Third, China makes its presence known by dispatching naval forces/combatants.  As a final step, China makes its final de facto occupation.  China followed this pattern in the South China Sea. As for the East China Sea, China has already advanced to the third step.

There are main two reasons for China’s recent maritime expansion. First, Chinese maritime strategy had shifted from coastal defense to offshore defense during the early 1980s, after Admiral Liu Huaqing became leader of the PLA Navy under Deng Xiaoping.[3]   A second reason has been China’s increasing energy demands. China became an oil importer after 1993 and has been the second largest oil consumer after the U.S. since 2003.

Chinese oil imports have been increasing as you can see in the diagram below.[4]


Chinese maritime imports of crude oil were almost one tenth of Japanese imports ten years ago, became one-half last year and will exceed that of Japan in 2011.

There are major differences between Japan and China over territorial claims to the East China Sea.  China insists that the Chinese Exclusive Economic Zone extends to the Okinawa Trough due to the location of her undersea continental shelf. The Japanese position is that the Chinese continental shelf extends to the Ryukyu Trench due to the soil survey, but there are some islands in the southeast that are Japanese territory on the Chinese continental shelf, and therefore we should draw the middle line between both side’s territory. There are submerged energy resources in this contested area. The middle line concept has been used by the international courts since the mid-1980s to settle similar territorial conflicts.  China insisted on the middle line concept in its territorial dispute with Vietnam over the Gulf of Tonkin, but its refusal to accept the same concept in the East China Sea amounts to a double standard. 


The current flash-point in the East China Sea is the Chunxiao Oil Rig which is about 5 km on the Chinese side from the middle line. It seems there is no problem if the Chinese Oil Rig is located on Chinese side of the middle line. However, China has developed a so-called slant digging method which it employs off the coast of Hong Kong. Therefore, China has the potential to extract gas from the Japanese side from the middle line, as illustrated in the below picture.


China has been conducting ocean surveillance and already has data regarding submerged energy resources in the East China Sea, whereas Japan has not because China has almost ten times more ocean surveillance vessels than Japan. Japan has even requested undersea energy data from China, but it has declined. As a consequence the Japanese government stated that it would conduct ocean surveillance in on the Japanese side of the middle line.  In response, China dispatched naval forces/combatants in September 2005, as seen in the below picture. Even after 2005, China threatened Japan by saying that it will dispatch naval combatants if Japan conducts ocean surveillance.

Source: Japan Maritime Self Defense Force

China has also conducted ocean surveillance in the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zones beyond the East China Sea. In 2001 the governments of Japan and China reached an agreement that China would notify Japan when Chinese ships were to conduct ocean surveillance in the Japanese EEZ. During 2001 there were no violations. However, since that year violations have been increasing: 2002, one time; 2003, six times; and 2004, 18 times.  There are two kinds of violations: Chinese ocean surveillance vessel that operates outside of the pre-notified area; and Chinese vessels which conducts ocean surveillance without any pre-notification.

Chinese ocean surveillance spots are concentrated around the Japanese island of Okinotorishima.  China does so for specific reasons. Electro-magnetic waves go straight into the air.  However, sound waves used for under water detection bend due to three factors:  temperature; salinity; and pressure. Because of these three factors, an area is created where submarine detection is difficult, a so-called “shadow zone,” as you see in the below picture.


Data about ocean conditions is used for conducting effective anti-submarine as well as anti-mine operations, because some mines use sound to search for their target.  Temperature, salinity and pressure are different depending on the time of year. Because of these factors China has conducted ocean surveillance in every season and in many places.

When China fired ballistic missiles near Taiwan in March 1996, the US Navy dispatched two aircraft carriers, the USS Independence from Yokosuka and the USS Nimitz from the south. The two aircraft carriers were stationed on the east side of Taiwan Island.  In the event of a cross-straits conflict, Chinese submarines will chase US aircraft carriers so that the naval battle area will be the east side of Taiwan. Three US nuclear attack submarines, the USS Buffalo (which replaced the USS San Francisco which ran aground), the USS Corpus Christi, and the USS Texas are stationed at Guam. Additionally, the SSGN Ohio, which was converted from a SSBN, will operate in the region from Guam. These American submarines will deploy to the Taiwan Strait during a cross-straits conflict.  Now, Okinotorishima is the midway point between Guam and the Taiwan Strait. Therefore, Chinese attack submarines will wait around Okinotorishima in order to intercept American nuclear submarines. That is why China is conducting ocean surveillance around Okinotorishima.

Most Chinese ocean surveillance vessels belong to the State Oceanic Administration. The director of the State Oceanic Administration, WANG Shuguang stated in July 2000, “Ocean resource war is just beginning. Who controls the ocean will survive, be prosperous and construct a strong modern maritime nation.” His perceptions of the ocean are first; international struggle, and second; securing natural resources. His number one objective for the 21st Century is establishing a strong Navy to advance Chinese interests. In May 2004 two scholars under his organization stated that Okinotorishima is a rock and not an island. One possible reason is this: China does not need to make pre-notification to conduct ocean surveillance if Okinotorishima is a rock, because there are no EEZs around rocks.

China wants not only to control Taiwan but also to become the regional hegemon and finally to become a world power beyond Taiwan. High ranking Chinese military officials signaled this intention when US Pacific Commander Admiral Keating visited China in June 2007, telling him with a serious face “You (the US) take care of the Eastern Pacific; we (China) will take care of the Western Pacific.[5]

2. Potential Conflict scenarios between China and Japan

There are three potential conflict scenarios between Japan and China. First would be Japan’s potential involvement in a widening cross-strait conflict, which is high intensity but low probability. The cross-strait balance has shifted in 2008 towards China’s favor in terms of numbers of major naval combatants as well as fourth generation fighter jets.

A second potential conflict scenario would be over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, which would be of middle intensity and middle probability.  A third potential area of conflict would be over maritime interests, including oil resources in the East China Sea and Chinese surveillance activity in the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone, which is of low intensity but high probability. All three potential scenarios are mainly maritime conflicts. Therefore, we have to focus on the maritime conflict prevention and confidence building measures (CBMs).

3. Conflict Prevention and Confidence Building Measures

First it is instructive to review my experience on how Japan and Russia had created confidence building measures after the Cold War.

Right after the end of the Cold War, in late 1992, three Navy Captains from Russia, the U.S., and Japan met at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University. I was the Japanese Representative. We produced a report entitled “Naval Cooperation in the Pacific: Looking to the Future”. Proposals for Russia-Japan Relations section of the report provided some initial suggestions for Confidence Building Measures. Some of the initial steps were:

First, joint signing of proposed an INCSEA (Incidents at Sea) agreement

The INCSEA agreement provides for:

  • steps to avoid collision;
  • not interfering in the "formations" of the other party;
  • avoiding maneuvers in areas of heavy sea traffic;
  • requiring surveillance ships to maintain a safe distance from the object of investigation so as to avoid "embarrassing or endangering the ships under surveillance";
  • using accepted international signals when ships maneuver near one another;
  • not simulating attacks on, launching objects toward or illuminating the bridges of the other party’s ships;
  • informing vessels when submarines are exercising near them; and
  • requiring aircraft commanders to use the greatest caution and prudence in approaching aircraft and ships of the other party and not permitting simulated attacks against aircraft or ships, performing aerobatics over ships, or dropping hazardous objects near them.[6]

A second confidence building area was to develop transparency measures through open exchanges of information on the following subject:

  • Defense policy
  • Military doctrine and strategy
  • Security concerns
  • Military organization
  • Force structure
  • Military expenditures
  • Military deployments
  • Prior notification of large scale transfers of forces (includes U.S. change of home ports in Japan)

Third, Exercises

  • Change the scope and direction of exercises to avoid offensive movements or actions
  • Prior notification and exchanging of plans for exercises
  • Establish communications links between the Russia Pacific Fleet Command and the CINCSDF (Commander in Chief, Self -Defense Fleet)
  • Exchange programs
  • Exchange ship visits
  • Exchange military school students and scholars

Future steps included;

  • Routine exchanges and ship visits
  • Maritime cooperation
  • Humanitarian aims: natural disasters, at sea rescue, etc.
  • Counter-illegal activities: drug, piracy, terrorism, etc.
  • Joint exercises
  • Bilateral or multilateral cooperative security activities
  • Military VIP exchanges
  • Development of a “Dangerous Military Agreement”[7]

In less than ten years Russia and Japan have achieved almost all of these initiatives. I believe this experience is a good model for CBMs between Japan and China. Establishment of communications interoperability is especially critical. For example, Russia had a submerged submarine accident in August 2005. Because that information was directly relayed to the Commander-in Chief of the Self Defense Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan, Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) was able to take immediate action. Similarly, a hot line between JMSDF and PLA Navy headquarters is critically important in order to avoid unintentional escalation in areas such as the East China Sea.

I believe port visits to each country should be carried out as Confidence Building Measures at first. Naval personnel exchanges in addition to exchanges between visiting naval vessels would also be useful.

I was able to propose an agenda of Confidence Building Measures for China and Japan during a Conference on China-US-Japan Relations in Shanghai during October 2006.  Chinese representative Rear Admiral Yang Yi, who was the Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies, PLA National Defense University, also stated that the three navies (US, Japan and China) should implement measures such as joint patrols, maritime security dialogue and consultation, information sharing, and training when the relationship has matured sufficiently.[8]

When Chinese Chief of General Staff General Fu Quan Yu visited Japan in April 2000, General Fujinawa, then Japanese Chairman of the Joint Staff Council, suggested future exchanges of naval port visits. However, General Fu’s response was not enthusiastic, as I observed when I was the Director J-4 in the Joint Staff Office. General Fu said, “The military exchange program between Japan and China is important but Japan should not forget two issues. First, Japan should learn history. And second, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty only applies in a bilateral context and not for the other country’s sovereignty or domestic affairs.” General Fujinawa made a reciprocal visit to China in June 2000. Then in November 2000, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, General Xiong Guangkai visited Japan and talked with his counterpart, Administrative Vice Minister of the Defense Agency, Mr. Ken Sato. Both parties agreed to a ship visit exchange. Chinese PLA ships would visit Japan in May 2002 and JMSDF ships would visit China in 2003. However, the defense exchange program between China and Japan came to a halt in 2001. When I visited Beijing as the President of the Japanese Joint Staff College and talked with General Xiong Guangkai in June 2001, he clearly announced to me his intention to continue the military exchange program.

Then in October 2006, Japanese Prime Minister Shintaro Abe visited China and met with Chinese Communist Party Secretary General Hu Jintao. Both agreed to create a so-called strategic relationship of mutual benefit. Then, General Xiong Guangkai’s successor, Deputy Chief of Staff General Zhang Qinsheng, visited Japan the following month and agreed with the then Japanese Defense Minister Kyuma that both countries will promote the defense exchange program including mutual ship visits.

When Hu Jintao visited Japan in May 2008, both governments called for strengthening exchange and cooperation in their joint statement.  Since then defense related cooperation has included: the Japanese Defense Minister’s visit to China in 2008; second, continuous dialogue by high defense officials; third, the Commander of the PLA Air Force’s visit to Japan in June 2008 and the Commander of the PLA Navy’s visit to Japan during the later half of 2008; and fourth, the Chinese missile destroyer Shenzhen‘s port call from November to December in 2007, followed by a Japanese destroyer’s visit to China in June 2008.[9]

It is now time to consider conducting joint exercises between the two navies. In the future, communication exercises between PLA Navy and JMSDF vessels will help develop a minimum level of interoperability. After that both navies should consider conducting humanitarian exercises such as search and rescue, disaster relief and submarine rescue. I believe this is an area that should be developed in the future to prevent conflict and reduce the suspicions between our military personnel.

If young Chinese military personnel had the opportunity to meet their Japanese counterparts and talk to each other, they would see that Japanese military personnel have no aggressive intentions and that the Self Defense Force equipment is totally defensive in nature. Similarly, if Japanese military personnel are able to visit Chinese military facilities, they may learn more about Chinese defense expenditures. Transparency plays a critical role in promoting trust. If we can implement meaningful CBMs, then perhaps we can prevent conflict.

4. Japanese Concerns

However, Japan has many concerns.  A first concern is the perception gap between China and Japan regarding military-to-military relations.  China pursues defense exchange programs for the following reasons.  First, China seeks to develop and strengthen its own military.  Second, they seek to strengthen their relationship with a rival nation to reduce hostility and building influence by selling Chinese technology.  Third, such exchanges allow China to increase deterrence by revealing new military technology.  Fourth, such exchanges advance Chinese propaganda goals such as denial of the “China Threat Theory,” and isolation of Taiwan to include criticism of American arms sales to Taiwan (China always sends a strong and consistent message from various directions in order to increase the effectiveness of propaganda shared during exchange programs).  A fifth Chinese motivation for such exchanges is to gather intelligence regarding foreign militaries, to include their current status, modernization trends, and to prepare for mutual development if there is a common benefit, and to study countermeasures if the country may be a threat.[10] Probably, one of goals for PLA might be to divide the U.S-Japan alliance.

The Japanese intention for defense exchange is purely for confidence building measures, creating transparency, reduction for changes of conflict, and respects for territory as well as EEZs. Therefore, there is an intention gap between China and Japan.

The second concern is the build-up pace of Chinese submarine forces. During the five years from 2001 to 2005, China built 16 submarines which is the same number as Japan’s total submarine force, and they are going to build more than 20 submarines in the next five years.

At the end of 2007 all Chinese nuclear submarines were stationed at the North Sea Fleet Base.  As such, they would have to pass through the Japanese south east island chains in order to deploy towards the open ocean. In November 2007, the newest Chinese JIN class SSBN was stationed at Hainan Island. It is desirable for the Chinese SSBN to be based at Hainan Island because they are able to access deep water without any geographic obstacles.  The new SSBN JIN class with JL-2 ballistic missiles stationed at Hainan Island may soon be joined by the new SHANG class SSN, which will protect the SSBN.  In the futures these SSNs will be a security concern for Japan due to their ability to threaten vital sea lines of communication in the South China Sea. The Chinese Navy already created a nuclear submarine organization in the South Sea Fleet.[11]

A fourth area of concern is China’s cyber and anti- satellite capabilities. Following its demonstration of an anti-satellite weapon in January 2007, China conducted many cyber attacks against Western countries from the end of August to the beginning of September in 2007[12], whereas it is illegal to have a cyber attack capability in Japan. I am sure that if the PLA invades the Senkaku Islands it will conduct simultaneous cyber attacks against Japan.

A fifth area of concern is Chinese espionage operations and their violation of intellectual property rights. A report to the U.S. Congress by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission published in November 2008 stated that Chinese companies make use of stolen software and other advanced technology.[13] There are many Chinese espionage cases in Japan too. One example is the case of China’s March 2007 use of a portable computer memory device to steal advanced robotic technology from Denso, a member of Toyota’s corporate group.

A sixth concern is China’s highly developed use of deception in its strategy.  Revered Chinese strategist Sun Tzu stated 2,600 years ago that “War is based on deception.”[14] Chinese military schools teach the deception strategies.[15]  One known examples of deception is China’s use of disguised maritime militia as a military resource.

Source: Chinese Internet

The above picture is that of a disguised Chinese fishing boat laying mines. When China took Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974, China used similar disguised fishing boats. In 1978 over one hundred Chinese armed fishing boats surrounded the Japanese Senkaku Islands. When the Philippines Mischief Reef was occupied by China at the beginning of 1990s, China used disguised maritime militia, saying that they needed safety refuges for fishermen.  Should Japanese naval vessels attack those maritime militias, it should be expected that China will issue propaganda that the JMSDF killed innocent civilians. Should China invade the Japanese Senkaku Islands, she will use those maritime militias as a spearhead.  In their 1999 book “Unrestricted Warfare,” two Chinese colonels advocated the use of cross border measures such as cyber attack, but also using non-military means including disguised fishing boats.

China also practices deception regarding its defense budgets.  While China has published a Defense White Paper every two years since 1998, the People's Liberation Army is not nearly as transparent as the Japanese Self Defense Forces, especially concerning China’s military expenditures. The following diagram is derived from the U.S. Annual Report to Congress “Military Power of the PRC 2008”[16] and the Japanese Defense Budgets on top of that. The Lowest Bar indicates the Official Defense Budget, the middle one means the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)’s low estimates and the right one is the DIA’s high estimates.


Then Chinese Ambassador in Japan, Wang Yi, stated that the Chinese Defense budget is not as large as the U.S. estimates. However, the large estimate is not only done by the United States. The following diagram also derived from the U.S. Annual Report to Congress “Military Power of the PRC 2007”.[17]  This is not just the finding of US intelligence organizations; other countries’ think tanks estimate that the Chinese defense budget must be two to three times the Chinese official military spending figure.


My estimate is that Chinese Defense Budgets only include development costs, personnel, commodity, maintenance and administrative expenses. The weapon production and purchasing costs are counted as part of national fundamental construction costs. Defense research and weapons developments are counted as part of the education and science research budgets. The armed police administration costs are included in administrative management budgets. Draft and civil military support costs are counted as part of regional finances.

Foreign weapons purchases such as the Su-27 and Su-30 are counted as the foreign currencies foundations. Food and self-sustenance costs are counted as military production activities. The above two items are part of the non-military budgets.[18]

Why does China offer false Defense Budgets?  This is consistent with China’s deception practices, such as Deng Xiaoping’s 24 Character Strategy, especially ‘Hide our capabilities and bide our time.[19] China wants to defeat the “China Threat Theory,” project an image that it is a peaceful rising power and seeks advantages in information and psychological warfare. Chinese defense budgets have been increasing at a rate in the double digits since 1989 just when every country started enjoying peaceful dividends.

At the annual Shangri-La Conference in Singapore last June 1, 2008, The People's Liberation Army deputy chief of the general staff insisted, "China is a peace-loving country and its people are a peace-loving people.” However, many Japanese do not trust China due to discrepancies between what she said and what she has actually done.

My conclusion is Distrust does not create confidence building.

Vice Admiral OTA is a former Director of Defense Intelligence Headquarters in Japan Defense Agency and is currently, the Director of the Center for Security and Crisis Management Education at the National Defense Academy.

[1] accessed in May 2008.

[2] accessed in May 2008.

[3] Bernard D. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea, National Institute Press, 2001, pp.164-165.

[4] Kent E. Calder, China’s energy diplomacy and its geopolitical implications, Reischauer Center, 2006.

[5] Keating: China proposed splitting the Pacific with the US, East-Asia, August 1, 2007.

[6], accessed on November 1, 2007.

[7] Captain Moreland, Ota, Pan’kov, Naval Cooperation in the Pacific: Looking to the Future, Center for International Security and Arms Control in Stanford University, February 1993, p.15.

[8] Rear Admiral Yang Yi, Cooperation among the US, Japan and China, October 2007, p.2.

[9] accessed in May 2008.

[10] Yasuhiro Matsuda, ‘Trial Theory of the Chinese military diplomacy – Solution of the Intention for External Strategy – National Institute for Defense Studies Journal, Volume 8 Number 1, October 2005, pp.5-6.

[11] Office of U.S. Naval Intelligence, China’s Navy 2007, p.32.

[12] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2008, p.3~4.

[13] U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2008 Report to Congress, Nov. 2007, p.2.

[14] Samuel B. Griffith, Sun Tzu - The Art of War, Oxford University Press, 1963, p.106.

[15] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2008, p.19.

[16] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2008, p.32.

[17] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2007, p.26.

[18] Ikuo Kayahara, Chuugoku Gunji Yougo Jiten, Sousousha, 2006, pp.178-179.

[19] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2008, p.8.

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