If the U.S. and China Go to War: The Battle of the Senkakus

How war could break out over Japan's islands.

Editor’s note: The following is a translation of Chapter 7 of the book If the U.S. and China Go to War假如中美开战 by the author and analyst Chen Pokong. The current volume was published in Chinese in 2013 and was later translated to Japanese. It presents a range of potential conflict scenarios between China and the United States, including what may trigger conflict, and what the order of events may be.

Chapter 7 of the book presents a hypothetical scenario involving “Brother Choy,” an eager Chinese patriot based in Hong Kong, and shows how the activism of groups like this around the Senkaku Islands might easily lead to a conflict that quickly spirals out of control. With continued tensions in the region, the chapter makes for sobering reading.

 

For a time, there was tranquility around the Senkaku Islands—Chinese maritime police boats or surveillance aircraft were nowhere to be found. The serenity persisted for several months. During this period, Chinese media carried articles by scholars urging a maintenance of good relations between China and Japan, and a cooling of tensions. Chinese government officials also adopted a milder stance when discussing Sino-Japanese relations in public.

Worries in the Japanese public about a potential Sino-Japanese conflict gradually dissipated and the general mood was one of overflowing optimism. To improve Sino-Japanese relations, the Japanese government even ordered that the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) cut exercises and activity in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands to the Chinese.

Out of the blue one day, Brother Choy, the head of the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands in Hong Kong, received a message from Old Fa, his Senkaku Islands protest counterpart on the mainland. Old Fa suggested that the Senkaku groups in Hong Kong and Taiwan once again get into fishing boats, form a joint expedition, and start protests afresh. Although Old Fa is a recent member of the World Chinese Senkaku Island Alliance, he is rather active and firm in his convictions.

Brother Choy hesitated. In the past, whenever he invited the mainland Senkaku Islands activists to protests, they would never show up because Chinese public security officials would get to them first. Hong Kong activists always ended up doing one-man shows. “This time, it’s going to be different,” Old Fa assured Brother Choy. “Circumstances have changed; we will definitely set out to sea!” Upon hearing that, Brother Cai was heartened, but felt apprehensive—after all, when Chinese and Japanese authorities were bickering over the Senkaku Islands, he didn’t consider protesting. But recently, China and Japan appeared to be cooling off over the issue. “The Chinese Communist Party can’t be relied on,” he fumed.

Brother Choy discussed the matter of going to sea with other Hong Kong activists and their Taiwan counterparts, later regained his enthusiasm for action and prepared to take to the seas.

One evening, eleven Hong Kong activists boarded the Xianfeng Number 1 and left Tsim Sha Tsui harbor. They successfully evaded the Hong Kong coast guard and made their way into international waters. The next morning, they rendezvoused with Old Fa and his three vessels at the waters near Guangdong Shanwei. They discovered that the Taiwanese weren’t able to meet up with them as they couldn’t get past coastal patrol. After some discussion, the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese activists decided not to wait for the Taiwanese, but instead make for the Senkaku Islands at midnight.

Old Fa had twenty-four people with him on the Minjinyu 1840, Zhexiangyu 1894 and Yueshanyu 1949. Because there were four boats in total, the superstitious Brother Choy (the number four sounds inauspiciously like Chinese for “death”) felt apprehensive and uneasy. Brother Choy would later maintain some distance between his vessel and the mainland boats.

At dawn, as the activists edged within thirty nautical miles of the Senkaku Islands, Brother Cai discovered that six Japanese patrol boats had been tailing them. As they neared to within twenty nautical miles, Brother Choy counted twelve Japanese patrol boats; the patrol boats would frequently issue warnings and appeared to make preparations to intercept them.

At about 8 a.m., the activists glimpsed the Senkaku Islands through the fog at sea. When they were five nautical miles away, the Japanese patrol boats closed in. The Chinese boats stayed their course but at reduced speed. The Japanese boats herded them in and starved off space as the mainland Chinese boats tried to break the encirclement.

Soon, the Japanese patrol boats were firing their water cannons at the protest boats. Brother Choy was soaked wet and his boat rocked violently. Suddenly, the Hong Kong fishing boat was rammed by a Japanese patrol boat, and Brother Choy slipped on the slippery deck. Two hands pinned him down as he tried to get up to his feet; a Japanese security team had boarded the fishing boat, handcuffed the crew and frog-marched them on board their patrol boat.

The three mainland fishing boats met with the same fate. After a thirty-minute struggle, all Chinese Senkaku Islands activists were arrested and held in custody on the Japanese patrol boats.

Just before the Japanese patrol boat carrying Brother Choy and company was about to set off, one of Choy’s colleagues yelled for him to look behind—several miles back, the masts and boat hulls of what looked like fishing boats could be discerned through the fog. Were they Japanese? Or Chinese? They looked more like the latter.

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