Japan’s Crimea Scenario
Could China seize disputed islands the way Russia seized Crimea?
One day in the not so distant future, the world wakes up to find that masked men, wearing military uniforms and carrying assault rifles, have suddenly appeared in a disputed territory.
The men loudly proclaim they are a of group activists, acting totally independent of any country. They stand their ground and ask for assistance from a larger, neighboring country that has made claims on the territory.
The scenario sounds familiar, but it takes place in an unlikely location—Japan. The idea that armed activists could seize Japan’s Senkaku Islands is not at all farfetched. Russia has showed the way.
Russian military and security services were undoubtedly behind the Crimean “activists” who seized key locations in southeastern Ukraine starting in late February.
The armed men claimed to be civilians. Their stated goal—splitting the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and reintegrating it back into Russia—just so happened to coincide with Moscow’s.
Crimea goes east
Could China do something similar in the East China Sea? Deploy “activists” armed with rifles and surface-to-air missiles to one or more of the Diaoyu Islands—Senkaku Islands to Japan—declare them Chinese territory and gamble that Japan won’t fight back?
Chinese nationalist activists—real activists—have landed on the Senkakus in the past. In August 2012, activists twice occupied the islands. The vigilantes chartered fishing boats, waded ashore and planted Chinese flags. On both occasions, the Japanese coast guard rounded up the activists and sent home.
One man even tried to take a hot air balloon to the Diaoyus, but crashed into the sea and had to be rescued by the Japanese.
In the case of both landings, Beijing knew what the activists were up to but didn’t stop them. The incidents promised to further China’s cause, whipping up patriotic fervor and putting pressure on Japan—all without directly involving the Chinese government.
What if Beijing went a step further, and mounted an operation similar to Russia’s in Crimea? What if Chinese troops masquerading as “activists” sailed to the disputed islands in a fleet of fishing boats? What if they were sufficiently heavily armed to fend off any reasonable Japanese response?
Look, China loves employing non-state actors to achieve the state’s ends. Chinese security forces have quietly assisted and shaped protests outside foreign embassies and factories—even shutting down the demonstrations once Beijing’s point has been made.
Beijing has encouraged Chinese fishermen to encroach upon China’s neighbors the South China Sea. Fishing boats are the standard first wave in Beijing’s encroachment tactics. First come the boats, then the claims of Chinese territorial ownership.
Which leads to another method China uses in the South China Sea. Beijing makes some provocative move, against which there is no good counter-move. On May 9 for example, Vietnam suddenly discovered it had a Chinese oil rig in its front yard.
In the short run, Vietnam had just two choices—destroy the rig and risk a war … or do nothing. Neither was a good choice. But war was worse by far.
Armed activists showing up in the Senkakus would present Tokyo with two choices. It could send troops to storm the islands, or simply wait out the activists.
An attack would risk a war. Leaving the activists alone, on the other hand, would grant an extra degree of legitimacy to China’s claim to the islands. And thus by increments, Beijing could come to wholly own the disputed territory.
Japan saw it coming
During the Cold War, Japan mainly worried about repulsing a major territorial invasion by the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Japan’s security policy continued largely unchanged. Japan built itself an anti-ballistic missile shield to protect against North Korea rockets, but otherwise it was business as usual.
Japan has been caught relatively flat-footed by the confrontation over the Diaoyus. Tokyo lacks the coast guard resources to cordon the islands and has proved unable to shape the media coverage of the dispute.
Still, the Japanese government actually has given quite a lot of thought to a Crimea-style scenario playing out in the Senkakus.
Beginning in the early 2000s, Japan started publicly worrying about armed groups mounting attacks on its territory. The annual Ministry of Defense white paper envisioned a scenario in which “foreign agents” armed with rifles and machine guns land on Japanese islands.
According to the white paper, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would rescue civilians, isolate the foreign agents … and then attack them.
It seemed that Tokyo was concerned about North Korean secret agents and Special Operations Forces perpetrating such an invasion during the build-up to a wider war. But the tactics Japan plans to use against Pyongyang’s infiltrators could also work in a nonlethal operation targeting activist occupiers.
Indeed, it’s possible that was Tokyo’s main concern all along.
Japan recently announced it was creating a new marine infantry unit, similar to the U.S. Marine Corps and complete with landing ships, Osprey tilt-rotors and amphibious vehicles. The brigade-size unit will be based in Nagasaki and train to quickly reinforce Japan’s remote islands.
These new troops are actually better for the activist problem than they are for defeating North Koreans. There would be little point in North Korea occupying distant Japanese territory in wartime. Any islands the North Koreans seized would be useless as staging bases for further attacks.
It’s possible Japan foresaw the Crimea scenario more than a decade ago—and has been quietly preparing for it ever since.
Not that China is likely to attempt a veiled island takeover any time soon. For the activists, there are some hard logistical problems. Moscow’s operation in Crimea succeeded in part because it took place entirely on land and within a short distance of Russian bases. Crimean activists had easy access to food, water and shelter.
The Senkaku Islands, by contrast, are far from any mainland and lack fresh water. Activists would have to bring along a lot of supplies in order to sustain any occupation. Even with adequate provisions, life on the islands would be boring, harsh and potentially dangerous.
And that’s assuming the Japanese don’t move to immediately retake the islands, making the activists’ lives very exciting … but their occupation short-lived.
True, a quick and forceful eviction could risk dangerous escalation. But having witnessed what happened in Crimea, Tokyo just might conclude that doing nothing is actually riskier over the long term.
The Russians got away with invading under the cover of activism. Were they to try the same thing in the Senkakus, the Chinese might not.