| HONG KONG, Sept 21
HONG KONG, Sept 21 The dispute between China and
Japan over a desolate jumble of rocky islets in the East China
Sea has taken a familiar turn with Beijing deploying a fleet of
paramilitary patrol ships while similar Japanese vessels steam
out in response.
As in earlier disputes over rocks and shoals in the South
China Sea, Beijing is relying on these vessels rather than more
menacing warships to assert its sovereignty over the disputed
islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.
For both sides, the presence of lightly armed paramilitary
ships reduces the risk of conflict, maritime experts say, while
they retain the option of deploying more firepower if the
However, unlike China's recent sparring with the Philippines
over Scarborough Shoal, this flare-up pits East Asia's two
maritime powers against each other in a confrontation loaded
with military risk.
If a clash erupted, experts warn it could be difficult to
contain to the disputed area and would likely draw in the United
States, Japan's security alliance partner, into hostilities with
The U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, Kurt
Campbell, said on Thursday the disputed islands were "clearly"
covered by a 1960 treaty obliging the United States to come to
Japan's aid if attacked.
"I actually don't think the two sides intend to fight a war
over the islands this time," said Sun Yun, an expert on Chinese
security policy at the Washington-based Stimson Centre.
"But, I do think it is more dangerous because the current
round of tension is more emotionally charged than the earlier
stand-offs in the South China Sea."
Politics may well keep the row simmering in the months ahead
with a Japanese election expected by year's end and China
preparing a leadership transition.
STEP INTO UNKNOWN
While China's maritime rise has captured global attention,
Japan has also been quietly and unobtrusively building a
powerful navy boasting some of the most advanced military
If tensions over the disputed islands led to military
conflict, it is not clear that China's navy could overpower
Japanese forces as easily as it might expect to prevail against
militarily weaker rivals in the South China Sea.
For both militaries, a naval clash would be a step into the
Japan's pacifist Constitution has insulated its navy from
combat since it was shattered in the final stages of World War
Modern China's navy is still in its infancy and also has no
In its three-decade military build-up, Beijing has
transformed what was a rusting, obsolete, coastal defence force
into a blue water navy that is increasingly capable of mounting
deployments and complex operations far from the Chinese
In raw numbers, China is now the world's second-ranked naval
power behind the United States with a fleet including about 80
major warships, 53 submarines, 50 landing ships and 86 missile
With a combination of Russian and homegrown hardware, it has
deployed multi-ship fleets through the Japanese island chain and
out into the Pacific ocean for exercises and training. Its ships
have taken part in international anti-piracy operations in the
Indian ocean. It has a fleet of advanced conventional
The most powerful Chinese warships and submarines are armed
with deadly, Russian-made supersonic anti-ship missiles.
However, the Chinese navy lacks operational training and
experience, naval experts say.
BIGGER THAN BRITAIN'S
Japan's Maritime Self Defence Force is clearly smaller with
about 48 major warships and 16 submarines but it remains a
formidable force compared with other traditional naval powers.
It has twice as many surface warships as Britain's Royal
Navy and twice as many submarines as the French navy.
Some of its key surface warships are equipped with the
advanced U.S. Aegis combat system that combines computers,
radars and information from other ships, satellites or aircraft
to track multiple targets and guide attacking missiles.
Japan's conventional submarines are also regarded as some of
the most advanced and stealthiest in the world.
Naval experts say the Japanese navy is also a highly trained
professional force that has exercised for decades in its major
roles of sea lane protection and anti-submarine warfare. It has
also trained regularly with U.S. forces.
If a clash took place in the area of the disputed islands
between the Japanese island of Okinawa and Taiwan, both sides
could deploy land-based strike aircraft to support their forces.
However, security experts say it is highly unlikely that any
fighting would be restricted to naval and air units in the
Beijing might tempted to use its huge arsenal of 1,200
ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan to attack Japanese forces and
If China was the aggressor, they say the United States would
almost certainly support Japan.
"I don't think the U.S. could stand aside," said Ross
Babbage, a security analyst and former senior Australian defence
official. "There would be a huge international crisis and I'm
not expecting that."
"And, I don't think either side really wants it."
However, there is always the danger of miscalculation and
accident with big fleets of paramilitary patrol vessels on
station and civilian protestors from both sides making landings
on the uninhabited islands.
This risk is likely to remain, even if the current round of
tension eases, maritime security analysts say.
The arrival of China as a naval power means Beijing now has
the means to challenge Japan's control over disputed maritime
territory in the East China Sea and the oil and gas thought to