Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: Japan Makes Major Defense Spending Pledges While China Increases Incursions in the South China Sea

Alex Vivona, Sam Cohen
Tuesday, November 23, 2021, 4:23 PM

Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone continue to escalate; Japan makes unprecedented defense pledges, to China’s chagrin; U.S. submarine collision gives China an opportunity to push back on U.S. operations in South China Sea

Caption: An unidentified Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) submarine and the guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG-69) conducted anti-submarine warfare exercises in the South China Sea in mid-November. (Source: JMSDF)

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Record Number of Chinese Incursions in Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone

September and October saw record numbers of Chinese air force operations within Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Taiwan’s Defense Ministry reported that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sent 117 sorties in September and 196 sorties in October, including J-16 jet fighters, H-6 strategic bombers and Y-8 submarine-spotting aircraft. A state’s ADIZ extends beyond a country’s territorial airspace and is used primarily to log approaching civilian and military aircraft. As of early November, the PLA had flown 725 sorties over Taiwan’s ADIZ and is on track to double 2020’s count of 380 by the end of the year. 

Increased recent tensions in October correlated with both China’s and Taiwan’s national independence anniversaries. The majority of the sorties in October coincided with China’s 72nd National Day celebrations at the beginning of the month. Li Fei, a professor with the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University, stated, “[I]t is clear that the PLA’s actions are aimed to warn Taiwan secessionists as well as the Western forces behind them, demonstrating to them the mainland’s determination and capacity to reunite the country.” 

However, an analysis of the flight paths seems to indicate the flights are also intended to gather operational intelligence. Most of the flights are concentrated around the island’s southwest zone. Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Navy Academy in Kaohsiung, argues this is because “there is a gap in the southwest, in Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range that is less than 3,000 meters (9,840ft) above sea level [the lowest point in the range], which allows the PLA’s aircraft radar system to glimpse Taiwan’s airbases in eastern Hualien and Taitung.” Taiwanese media have reported that both areas house underground hangers where roughly 400 aircraft could avoid a PLA first strike.

The PLA’s air force incursions were juxtaposed with simultaneous calls for peaceful action by Chinese officials. Speaking at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Oct. 9, the anniversary of the revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty in 1911, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to achieve “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan. Xi stated that “Taiwan independence separatism is the biggest obstacle to achieving the reunification of the motherland, and the most serious hidden danger to national rejuvenation,’ but added, “the historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled and will definitely be fulfilled.” Achieving reunification is a paramount priority for the Chinese Communist Party, however, Taiwan’s current governing party—the Democratic Progressive Party—remains resolutely opposed to reunification.

Xi’s speech was poorly received by the ruling party in Taiwan. The day after the speech, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen formally announced opposition to reunification and vowed that “the nation’s future rests in the hands of Taiwan’s people.” The following week, rhetoric by Taiwanese government officials escalated. On Oct. 14, Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told parliament that Taiwan “absolutely will not start or set off a war, but if there are movements we will meet the enemy full on.” 

Chiu’s proclamation of self-defense came mere days after news broke of U.S. Marines and a U.S. special operations unit covertly deploying to Taiwan in 2020. The White House and Department of Defense have since refused to comment on the deployment of American troops, but the Wall Street Journal reported that “current and former U.S. government officials and military experts believe that deepening ties between U.S. and Taiwan military units is better than simply selling Taiwan military equipment.” The U.S. has sold Taiwan billions of dollars of equipment in the past two decades, which some experts believe is neither necessary nor sufficient to protect Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. Matt Pottinger, deputy national security adviser during the Trump administration, told the Wall Street Journal that “Taiwan badly neglected its national defense for the first 15 years or so of this century, buying too much expensive equipment that will get destroyed in the first hours of a conflict, and too little in the way of cheaper but lethal systems—antiship missiles, smart sea mines and well-trained reserve and auxiliary forces—that could seriously complicate Beijing’s war plans.” 

On Nov. 15, President Biden and President Xi met over a three-and-a-half-hour virtual conference. U.S. officials said the talks were meant to reduce the possibility of miscommunications leading to unintended conflict. “It seems to me we need to establish some common-sense guardrails,” Biden said. According to U.S. and Chinese officials, the conversation also touched on hot-button issues, such as Taiwan. Xi warned Biden against testing China’s determination to reunify with Taiwan. In a readout of the meeting, Xi stated, “[W]e are patient and are willing to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the utmost sincerity, but China will have to take resolute measures if the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces provoke, compel or even cross the red line.”

Japan Investing in Defense, China Responds With Show of Force

In the wake of his unexpectedly strong election victory, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida promised to pursue his party’s unprecedented pledge to double defense spending to two percent of gross domestic product (GDP). That figure—which equates to about $100 billion—would reflect a huge shift in a nation that has kept its military spending to within one percent of GDP since World War II. It would also put Japan’s defense spending in line with pledges by NATO members, whose defense spending was a key focus of the United States under the Trump administration. The additional money could allow Japan “to invest in aircraft carriers, drones, jet fighters, missiles, submarines, cyber and other systems crucial to 21st-century warfare.” Notably, Kishida’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party, has gained support among younger voters in longtime-pacifist prefectures like Okinawa as a result of its hard line on defense spending and the threat posed by China. While Japan has not yet pursued the full $50 billion increase, the Japanese government has planned to pursue $6.1 billion in supplemental defense spending for 2021, which would “bring the total defense budget for the current fiscal year to around $53 billion—in the same league as Germany and France but still only around a quarter of China’s.” With that additional money, “the Ministry of Defense will purchase maritime patrol aircraft, naval mines and other hardware.” Analysts have noted that the “equipment initially set for purchase in the fiscal 2022 budget request will be brought forward, signaling a sense of urgency to the United States. It is highly unusual for Japan to buy new equipment with money from a supplementary budget.” For its part, the U.S. signaled its approval of Kishida’s two percent defense spending pledge. The assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel Kritenbrink, noted that “[t]his is the decision for our sovereign Japanese allies to decide, but I’ll be very clear we would welcome increased Japanese defence spending.”

Along with the pledged increase in defense spending, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) has been conducting a number of anti-submarine warfare exercises in recent weeks. In one exercise, the JMSDF and the U.S. Navy conducted an exercise consisting of Japanese helicopter destroyer JS Kaga (DDH-184) and destroyer JS Murasame (DD-101), an Oyashio-class submarine, a P-1 maritime patrol aircraft, and U.S. Navy P-8A maritime patrol aircraft and the Arleigh-Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG-69). This was the first time a JMSDF submarine partook in an anti-submarine warfare exercise with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea, something the JMSDF highlighted in its press release. In addition to the U.S. anti-submarine warfare exercise, the JMSDF conducted a submarine warfare exercise with the U.K. Navy’s nuclear-powered submarine HMS Artful and a JMSDF diesel-electric Soryu-class attack submarine. This was the first time the JMSDF conducted a bilateral exercise with a Royal Navy submarine. Finally, JS Kaga and the U.S. Navy’s Carl Vinson Strike Group conducted joint flight operations and tactical training in the South China Sea, a continuation of the U.S. Navy’s “high—and highly publicized—operations tempo for the past 18 months both in the South China Sea and through the Taiwan Strait.”

China has reacted to Japan’s defense moves with significant military displays of its own, as well as arguments that Japan wishes to “eventually break free from the pacifist Constitution, so it can become a ‘normal’ country as if its war crimes committed in World War II never happened.” After completing an exercise, 10 Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and Russian Navy warships transited through the Tsugaru Strait, a narrow, 12-mile-wide strait that separates the main Japanese island of Honshu from the northern prefecture of Hokkaido. Japan claims only three nautical miles of territorial seas from the shores of both Honshu and Hokkaido, which makes a six-mile-wide international waters passage through the center of the strait. Japan decided to claim less than its 12-mile allocation under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) during the Cold War to allow “US ships carrying nuclear weapons to transit the strait without violating Japan’s commitment to the ‘Three Non-Nuclear Principles’ of not developing or deploying atomic weapons, as well as not permitting nuclear arms to enter its territory.” The Chinese and Russian fleet consisted of “five Chinese vessels—one Renhai-class destroyer, one Luyang-III-class destroyer, two Jiangkai-class frigate and one Fuchi-class replenishment oiler—and five Russian vessels, including two Udaloy-class destroyers, two Steregushchiy-class corvettes and one Marshal Nedelin-class missile-tracking ship.” The state-run newspaper Global Times noted that “the joint task force [could] encircle Japan” and “displays a high level of political and military mutual trust that exists between China and Russia in terms of safeguarding regional peace and stability, at a time when the US is ganging up with its allies like Japan and Australia and destabilizing Asia-Pacific.” The Global Times also emphasized that the transit “is completely in line with the international law and common practice” and rejected as a “lame argument[] with perverted logic” any comparison between the PLAN transiting the Tsugaru Strait and the U.S. Navy or other Western navies transiting the Taiwan Strait.

U.S. Submarine Collision Prompts Furious Response by China

On Oct. 2, the USS Connecticut (SSN-22), a Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine, collided with what a subsequent U.S. Navy investigation found to be an uncharted seamount in the South China Sea. The collision, which injured at least 11 sailors, required the submarine to make a long and unusual voyage on the surface back to Guam, where the damage could be assessed. In announcing the incident, the U.S. Navy emphasized both that the nuclear-powered propulsion plant was undamaged and that the collision “occurred in international waters in the Indo-Pacific region.” As is typical in groundings or collisions, U.S. Seventh Fleet’s commander relieved Connecticut’s leadership team of command of the submarine as a result of the collision.

While the collision itself may seem minor, China reacted harshly to the news, citing its “grave concerns” about “the brief and vague statement” that the U.S. Navy issued. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman went on to say that “[s]uch an irresponsible, cagey practice gives regional countries and the international community every reason to question the truth of the incident and the intention of the US.” He then accused the United States of “stirr[ing] up troubles in the South China Sea under the guise of ‘freedom of navigation’” and “stress[ed] that the South China Sea is where all countries in the region call home, not a hunting ground for the US to pursue geopolitical interests.” U.S. Defense Department spokesman John Kirby responded that “it’s an odd way of covering something up when you put a press release out about it,” but the Chinese government remained unhappy with the U.S. Indeed, the state-run newspaper Global Times launched an online petition demanding the U.S. military to reveal information on the collision. The Global Times cited experts arguing that the “accident exposed intensive, hidden US military activities beyond freedom of navigation in the region, which could seriously damage navigation safety, fishing work, ecological environment, not to mention sovereignty violations in the South China Sea.” The newspaper also took the opportunity created by the USS Connecticut’s mishap to list past U.S. Navy accidents in the region and to characterize a 2018 encounter between the USS Decatur and a PLAN warship as a near-collision caused by the U.S. warship, despite video evidence showing otherwise. 

China may also be using the incident to highlight future risks. The Chinese ambassador for disarmament affairs, Li Song, argued at a U.N. meeting that “[t]he recent accident involving foreign nuclear submarines in the South China Sea further illustrates that foreign nuclear submarines that have travelled far and wide will only cause trouble, and will not be welcomed by countries and people in the region.” This message was echoed in a column in state-run news outlet CGTN, which argued that “[t]he U.S.’ provocative employment of nuclear submarines to secretly infringe on China’s maritime territory in the SCS ... runs the risk of triggering a war between these two major powers by miscalculation.” It further argued that the incident demonstrated that the “U.S. Navy isn’t professional enough to operate these vessels,” which it said leads to fears about what might have happened “had this incident been worse than it reportedly was.” It went on to claim that these “fears are heightened by the fact that AUKUS will likely result in [Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States] sending more nuclear submarines to the region in the future. Now is the time to prevent that from happening in the interests of the region’s military and especially ecological security.”

Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines See Chinese Incursions in South China Sea, While Japan and China Exchange Words Over East China Sea Dispute

Over the past month, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines each saw a number of Chinese vessels violating their 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Malaysia saw Chinese Coast Guard vessels near the Kasawari gas field, which is estimated to hold three trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas. The gas field is being developed by Petronas, the Malaysian state-owned gas company. Chinese “gunboat diplomacy,” as analyst Collin Koh described it, has led to the Malaysian government twice this year summoning China’s ambassador in Kuala Lumpur to express its displeasure. Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said that he expects incursions to continue, but he also noted, “We have always protested. I have lost count of the number of protest notes we have sent to China. We will be steadfast and continue to respond diplomatically to them.”

Meanwhile, a Chinese survey vessel accompanied by a Chinese Coast Guard escort spent seven weeks mapping the seabed within Indonesia’s EEZ near an Indonesian gas field. Unlike their Malaysian counterparts, the Indonesian government has not lodged a protest of this incursion, though its military did monitor the Chinese vessels throughout their activity. Analysts view the Indonesian government as “hedging its bets and not doing anything that will lead to increased tensions” as China is a major economic partner. In a recent public event, Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Investment Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan said of the Chinese incursions: “We don’t feel we have issues with China. It’s like brothers and sisters. Sometimes you have problems, but don’t make it into a big problem.” 

Analysts are unsure how to reconcile the vastly differing responses by Malaysia and Indonesia to similar Chinese incursions. Malaysia, for example, has scrambled fighter jets and summoned the Chinese ambassador for explanations of aggressive events. But lately, Indonesia has taken a more quiet approach described above. Some analysts attribute this to Indonesia’s “dependence on Chinese investment and Covid-19 vaccines,” but others say that the Chinese incursions are less worrisome for Indonesia because “Indonesia is not drilling in any ‘sensitive’ areas at the moment and is simply observing China make what appears to be commercial seismic surveys inside its exclusive economic zone.” And some observers think that Indonesia might just have not settled on a policy: “Indonesia’s response is all over the place, and China takes advantage of that.” Moreover, analysts note that “China’s persistent efforts to harass oil and gas activity within the nine-dash line have seemingly complicated the investment picture for oil and gas operators in Southeast Asia.”

Lastly, the Philippines issued a diplomatic protest over the “unlawful issuance of over 200 radio challenges, sounding of sirens, and blowing of horns by Chinese government vessels against Filipino authorities conducting legitimate, customary, and routine patrols over and around the Philippines’ territory and maritime zones.” It went on to say that “[t]hese provocative acts threaten the peace, good order, and security of the South China Sea and run contrary to China’s obligations under international law.” The Philippines also protested Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocking and water-cannoning Philippines resupply vessels en route to Second Thomas Shoal (Mandarin: Ren’ai Jiao; Tagalog: Ayungin Shoal) in the Spratlys. Second Thomas Shoal is within the EEZ of the Philippines off Palawan Island. The Philippines has occupied Second Thomas Shoal since the Philippine Navy intentionally ran aground its transport ship BRP Sierra Madre on the reef in 1999.

China’s actions, argues the Philippines, are a violation of the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral ruling, in which the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal rejected China’s “nine-dash line” claim to sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea. The tribunal instead ruled that “to the extent China had historic rights to resources in the waters of the South China Sea, such rights were extinguished to the extent they were incompatible with the exclusive economic zones provided for in the [UNCLOS] Convention.” The U.S. State Department released a statement in response to the Chinese Coast Guard’s actions, noting that “[t]he United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of this escalation that directly threatens regional peace and stability, escalates regional tensions, infringes upon freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law, and undermines the rules-based international order.” The statement also invoked the 2016 tribunal award and “reaffirm[ed] that an armed attack on Philippine public vessels in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S. Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.”

U.S. Legislation

In mid-October, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations approved bipartisan legislation to sanction Chinese officials and entities contributing to island building. Introduced by Sens. Marco Rubio and Ben Cardin, the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act of 2021 aims to maintain free commercial navigation in the region. “Our bill sends a strong bipartisan message that the United States will defend the free-flow of commerce and freedom of navigation, safeguard the sovereignty of our allies, and promote the peaceful diplomatic resolution of disputes consistent with international law,” said Cardin. China argues that due to the nine-dash line, the majority of the South China Sea falls under its jurisdiction. According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, China has engaged in artificial island-building in the Spratlys since 2013, where it currently occupies seven outposts, and has developed a strong presence in the Paracels, where it occupies 20 outposts.

In response to the proposed legislation, the Chinese state-run Global Times stated that “some extreme anti-China politicians of the US are trying to find new tricks to create troubles for China-US relationship” and that “the bill shows that politicians like Rubio are totally ignorant and arrogant on the relevant issues in Asia.”


The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) released a report entitled “The Poison Frog Strategy: Preventing a Chinese Fait Accompli Against Taiwanese Islands,” which explored the potential “policy and strategy options to prevent” China from seizing Taiwan that resulted from a CNAS-run war game. As media reported, the war game “found few credible options for pushing China to abandon Dongsha and return to the status quo.” The war game demonstrated that “discouraging China from seizing Taiwanese territory before it happens is the most salient lesson of the game,” as “the teams representing the United States and Taiwan struggled to compel a Chinese withdrawal from Dongsha without escalating the crisis.” The report suggests that the U.S. and Taiwan should “prepare to implement coordinated, whole-of-government deterrent measures quickly and ensure immediate consequences for Chinese coercion or aggression short of war.” It also notes that “Japan’s cooperation is essential in this type of scenario because it could change China’s calculations of the military and diplomatic risks of coercion or aggression.” A similar study described by Harvard Kennedy School professor Graham Allison in The National Interest concludes similarly that “imaginative diplomacy offers a much better way for parties to both secure their interests and avoid war.”

In a speech to Taiwan’s parliament on Oct. 6, Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng acknowledged that military tensions between Taiwan and the mainland are at their worst in recent decades. Chiu proclaimed that China would be capable of a “full-scale” invasion of Taiwan by 2025. “It is the toughest situation I have seen in more than 40 years of my military life,” Chiu said. The director-general of the National Security Bureau, Chen Ming-tong, subsequently refined Chiu’s timeline. Chen told parliament on Oct. 20 that the chances of war with the mainland within the next year are very low. 

  Rising cross-strait tensions have led to experts questioning the readiness of Taiwanese military forces. Grant Newsham, a retired U.S. Marines colonel, said Taiwan has a small group of well-trained soldiers, but the military is systemically underfunded, and its reserves system is disorganized. A government watchdog agency published a report stating that reservists have a “just passing through mentality.” This may be attributed to Taiwan soldiers not believing they will actually be required to fight. A 2019 survey found that although around half of Taiwanese civilians are willing to fight, only a small percentage believes a conflict will emerge.

In The Diplomat, Steven Stashwick writes about the “growing naval imbalance between expanding Chinese and aging U.S. fleets.” According to a report released by the U.S. Defense Department, the Chinese PLAN has a fleet of 355 ships, compared to the U.S. fleet’s 294. More significantly, writes Stashwick, “the overall size of China’s fleet could reach 420 by mid-decade—an extraordinary jump—and 460 ships by 2030, still five years before the U.S. Navy hopes to reach the size the PLAN is today (again, a goal that itself has not been fully funded by the U.S. Congress).” While Stashwick notes that the U.S. maintains a “qualitative edge,” he also observes that “in sufficient numbers, even less-capable platforms can overwhelm fewer advanced ones, and the United States’ advantage in those most advanced warships is shrinking.” While this is worrisome for the United States, “over the next 10 to 15 years China’s shipyards may struggle to maintain the current production rate as the PLAN’s current fleet ages and accrues a maintenance burden more comparable to what the U.S. fleet has today.” If this occurred, the PLAN might not reach the highest projections of its end strength.

In Foreign Affairs, Van Jackson writes that “[t]he United States is not the cause of the[] troubling trends [in Asia], but its overly militarized approach to Asia is making them worse.” Tracing the militarized approach to countering China of three successive administrations— Obama, Trump and Biden—Jackson argues that this approach “brings antagonistic military forces into closer proximity, heightening the risk of preventable accidents that could spiral into conflict.” He also argues that it “threatens the leadership and nuclear arsenals of China and North Korea, incentivizing both to invest in improved military hardware that can hold U.S. forces at greater distance.” Jackson contends that this approach also misses the more important economic issues, and “[w]hile Washington has busied itself with new arms sales and expanding its force posture, China has become the region’s economic hegemon.” Jackson suggests that “[b]y treating security as something that only missiles and submarines can ensure, allowing its economic position to weaken, and forfeiting opportunities to address underlying sources of violence, the United States is helping create a perilous situation in the Indo-Pacific.”

Finally, on 9DashLine, Jacob Stokes writes an assessment of the Biden administration’s policy toward the Indo-Pacific. While he believes the “opening months have produced tangible wins and presented a generally coherent theory of success in regional affairs,” he also thinks significant challenges loom. He identifies three pillars of the Biden administration policies: “revitalising relationships with allies and close partners”; “constructing and implementing a policy for ‘strategic competition’ with Beijing”; and “cultivating positive relations with the rest of the region, including in Southeast and South Asia, and the Pacific Islands.” Stokes identifies the major obstacles in the coming months as fully staffing key positions in the State and Defense departments, making competition with China a whole-of-government effort, and formulating “a sizeable economic pillar to its regional strategy, even as it steers clear of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).” He also notes that “Biden’s prioritisation of allies and close partners could leave the rest of the region’s states unsure about their role and those of the region’s legacy multilateral institutions, such as [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] and the East Asia Summit.”

Alex Vivona is a student at Harvard Law School. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Oxford and a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, San Diego.
Sam Cohen is a J.D. student at Harvard Law School. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University and served as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other private or public entity.

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