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.

Brother Choy was both delighted and alarmed—was this a good or bad turn of events? As the boats—big and small, and traveling in close formation—drew nearer, they turned out to indeed be Chinese vessels—were there ten? A hundred? A thousand? No one could say for sure.

Panicking at the new development, the twelve Japanese patrol boats started to break formation. Some Japanese security officials started radioing their superiors for instructions, while others hailed the rapidly approaching Chinese fishing boats, requesting that they immediately retreat.

The Chinese boats ignored the hailing and stayed on course. Some of these vessels even picked up speed. As the Japanese patrol boats readjusted their formation and prepared to intercept, the Japanese security officials received word from their superiors that about a dozen Chinese maritime authority and police ships were following the newly arrived Chinese fishing boats.

During the bustle, some of these Chinese fishing vessels managed to break the Japanese patrol boat blockade and landed on the Senkaku Islands. The manner in which the “fishermen” moved suggested that they had received military training.

Upon observing these newly arrived Chinese “fishermen,” Brother Choy suddenly recalled whispers of warning from others—Old Fa, the mainland Chinese Senkaku activist, was said to be a communist secret agent. Indeed, Brother Choy recalled, Old Fa’s recent rendezvous with the Hong Kong activists appeared to be unimpeded; if anything, Old Fa had interacted more frequently with Hong Kong activists recently than in the past couple of decades. It could be that Old Fa was receiving orders from on high to embroil the Hong Kong activists in an incident. The sense of being duped sent a shiver down Brother Choy’s spine.

How could Brother Choy know that the placid state of affairs between the Japanese and the Chinese was but a smokescreen for a larger conspiracy?

As more and more Chinese “fishermen” streamed onto the Senkaku islands, the Japanese security personnel fired warning shots into the air. Later, Chinese would authorities accuse the Japanese of firing the first shots in the coming conflict.

Upon hearing the warning shots, the hundreds of Chinese “fishermen” on Senkaku whipped out pistols and submachine guns, and opened fire on the Japanese security detail who landed on the island, killing all of them and turning the clear, cerulean waters and sands blood red. The “fishermen” then raised several red Chinese flags. Brother Choy, who watched the entire incident in a daze, didn’t know whether to feel angry or afraid.

Soon, fighter jets could be heard screaming through the air, and muffled explosions echoed across the water. Brother Choy knew that the Chinese and Japanese were engaging each other in the air and at sea; although he knew that he should be excited at this turn of events, he couldn’t help feeling that matters had escalated. As the Japanese patrol boats carrying the Hong Kong and mainland activists sped away from the Senkaku Islands, Brother Choy, not wanting to contemplate the present reality, closed his eyes.

In the name of “protecting and defending Chinese citizens,” the Chinese government started an invasion of the Senkaku Islands. A new Sino-Japanese war had erupted.

The conflict persisted for over two months. The Chinese deployed the East Sea Fleet, the North Sea Fleet and the air force, while keeping South Sea Fleet in reserve. The Japanese deployed virtually the entire Japan Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces. To support Japan, the United States deployed the United States Forces Japan, the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific and parts of the Third Fleet. Russia sent its Pacific Fleet near Japan as a symbolic warning force.

China had the advantage in the first two months of conflict. The “fishermen” who seized Senkaku were really troops from the People’s Liberation Army, and this three-thousand-odd force continued to hold the islands. Meanwhile, the Chinese air force, utilizing weaponry like the Su-27, Su-30, J-20 stealth fighter, J-21, J-31 and Pterodactyl I drones, destroyed military or civilian airfields on Ishigaki, Shimoji-shima, Naha and Yonaguni islands surrounding Senkaku, a severe blow for the Japanese air force. Chinese warships and submarines destroyed dozens of Japanese patrol boats, corvettes and destroyers.

But the PLA’s momentum was eventually blunted by the JSDF’s superior fighting abilities. Despite being a smaller force, the JSDF managed to inflict triple the casualties to the PLA during each skirmish, and soon the losses began taking a toll.

At the beginning of the war, Washington told Beijing that it strongly opposed China’s aggression and requested that Chinese troops immediately and unconditionally withdraw from the Senkaku Islands and cease the attack on Japan. Washington also reiterated that sovereign claims over the Senkaku Islands can only be resolved through peaceful negotiation. Beijing replied that the Senkaku Islands have always been Chinese territory, and that the Chinese government and people are firmly resolved in recapturing them. Beijing also requested that Washington stop favoring Japan, adopt a “correct” attitude, and face up to reality. Finally, Beijing said it was willing to maintain the peace, order and stability of the Pacific with the United States.

After the failed warning to China, the American military joined the fighting in accordance with the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. The situation began to reverse in favor of Japan. Any advantage China had with its new military hardware, which was heavily plagiarized from the Americans, was quickly negated. For instance, Chinese stealth fighters couldn’t evade American radar; American guided missiles, on the other hand, hardly missed any Chinese military target.

In the air, the American and Japanese pilots reigned supreme. Chinese fighters proved no match for American fifth generation F-22 and F-35 fighters. Below the seas, the Los Angeles-class submarines overwhelmed the Chinese navy. Tomahawk missiles, fired from the USS Ronald Reagan, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, wrecked and ruined virtually all Chinese military airfields in the theater of conflict.

The turning point of the war came with the sinking of the Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. During early days of the new Sino-Japanese war, a Chinese fleet consisting of the Liaoning, four destroyers, four corvettes and other support vessels had played a key role in the East China Sea, destroying any Japanese warship it chanced upon, and forcing the retreat of Japan’s main naval force.

But the Liaoning-led Chinese fleet was soon repelled by continued assaults from American and Japanese aircraft and warships. One Chinese destroyer was sunk after being hit with a barrage of guided missiles, while two other destroyers were so badly damaged that they were rendered combat ineffective. The Liaoning was stripped of protection as the other Chinese warships were deployed for other sorties. During a bout of bitter fighting, a Lanzhou-class destroyer even broke formation and tried to escape the fighting altogether.

The various combat developments gradually exposed the aircraft carrier Liaoning. Five Soryu-class Japanese submarine, which had been tailing the carrier at a distance in the East China Sea, seized the opportune moment to strike—twenty missiles were fired at the Liaoning, all hit their mark, and the Chinese aircraft carrier exploded in flame, began listing and its charred hull crumbled.

The Soryu-class submarine battle group fired another ten torpedoes at the Liaoning, and the Chinese aircraft carrier sunk in wave of explosions and a towering blaze. It was later learned that the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, who was on board the carrier, had a premonition of impending doom and hopped on a speed boat before the ship sunk. He managed to escape with no worse than a singed scalp.

After the Liaoning incident, Beijing asked Washington for armistice and requested that the United States act as a peace mediator. Beijing also suggested that Japan and China should both withdraw their forces fifty nautical miles from the Senkaku Islands, either in turns or simultaneously. Washington rejected the Chinese demands, reaffirmed Japan’s administration over the islands and ordered Chinese military troops to leave the Senkaku Islands and its nearby waters.

As ceasefire talks worsened, some Chinese generals threatened to fire nuclear weapons at the Japanese mainland. Japanese media then reported that unconfirmed sources said Japan has been secretly developing small and precise nuclear weapons capable of striking any targets in China. Washington also announced that any attempt by China to use nuclear weapons would be met with a preemptive nuclear strike by America, and stressed that the USS Ronald Reagan and other Nimitz-class aircraft carriers in the theater of conflict were already equipped with nuclear warheads.

During the conflict in the East China Sea, there was fighting going on concurrently in the South China Sea. An American battleship group had fired Tomahawk missiles at the Chinese man-made islands in the Spratly Islands (Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef), destroying airfields, radar and other military equipment. This incident proved that the artificial Chinese islands were no better than defenseless, fixed aircraft carriers that could be laid to waste in a heartbeat.

The Chinese South Sea Fleet, badly decimated by the combined assaults of Japan-American forces, found itself under attack by the Vietnamese navy. The Vietnamese quickly seized islands in the Spratly Islands chain formerly occupied by the Chinese, as well as some of the Paracel Islands. The Philippines, citing a mutual defense treaty with the United States, engaged the Chinese navy in bitter fighting, and later declared that it was taking Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal in the Spratly Islands. Meanwhile, India deployed its mountain divisions in a surprise attack on PLA forces in contested border territories West of China. The victorious Indian troops tore down Chinese military infrastructure in those areas and erected their own military fortifications to prevent a Chinese counterattack.

Back on Senkaku Islands, the over three thousand PLA ground troops holding out in defensives fortifications were locked in an impasse. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces eventually surrounded the island and called for the PLA troops to surrender or be attacked. The PLA troops laid down their weapons and gave in without a fight.

Before the surrender, an interesting exchange between the PLA troop commander and his men was overheard.

The Chinese commander had shouted to his men: “Brothers, we’ve conquered the Diaoyu Islands, but the navy and air force have been defeated and no longer have our backs. They’ve retreated, leaving us in this desperate position! What say you?”

The troops buzzed.

The commander then yelled: “Fellows, you’ve stuck with this old soldier, so I mustn’t let you down. Most of you are the only child in the family, am I right?”

“Yes!” the men replied.

The commander gazed around and continued: “In consideration of the plight of your parents, this old soldier can’t lead you to your doom! What say you?”

The matter was settled in a chorus of assent.

As part of the conditions of surrender, the PLA commander requested that his men be allowed to go to America, Japan or Taiwan instead of being deported back to China. There was much debate over this issue in Japan: some suggested that the Chinese soldiers be put on trial while others said they should be forgiven; yet others said they should repatriated while some felt that the Chinese soldiers should be given a choice of the country they wish to reside in. When gathering personal information from the captured Chinese soldiers, the Japanese government decided to add a column on the form for the soldiers to indicate their preferred country of residence. Over 60 percent of the Chinese troops checked the option for residing in America; nearly 30 percent picked Japan; the remainder picked Taiwan. Not a single soul chose China.

On the nineteenth day of the Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese government announced that it would cease all military activity in the Senkaku Islands region. Mainland propaganda, however, announced that China had extracted an enormous victory over the Japan Self-Defense Forces and punished Japan, inflicting innumerable casualties and military losses. The Chinese government reiterated its sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, and again warned Japan: Don’t ever provoke China, or there will be even more disastrous consequences.

The new Sino-Japanese war thus concluded on this note. Internationally, China was regarded as the vanquished. China had lost its entire East Sea Fleet, half its North Sea Fleet, crippling losses to its South Sea Fleet, and more than half its air force. Japan lost nearly half its navy and a third of its air force. The US sustained relatively few losses—four naval vessels were sunk, twelve badly damaged and about twenty fighters downed or damaged—in part because of the Americans’ superior technology, and also due to the fortuitous command by the Chinese Central Military Commission in the early phase of the war, which ordered that Chinese forces should “only attack Japanese ships, avoid attacking American ships.”

In Taiwan, the Sino-Japanese victory was celebrated joyously, and mass demonstrations calling on the Taiwanese government to immediately declare the island’s independence soon followed...

For the duration of the Sino-Japanese war, uniformed and plainclothes police kept security tight across China. Even the much-mocked local residents’ committee grew more active, strictly surveilling the movements and censoring the speech of citizens. The Chinese authorities ordered mainland media not to run independent reports of the Sino-Japanese war; all reports had to be approved by officials at Xinhua News Agency, the regime mouthpiece. Internet censorship was strengthened—all online discussions about politics or the war were deleted almost as soon as they were put up.

A week after the war, however, change was in the air. On the Chinese Internet, some posts that were critical of the government escaped censorship. At first, criticism was veiled and humorous: “Who can say what the conclusion to the New Sino-Japanese war was?” “Word on the street is that a certain party was defeated” “It is rumored that an island was completely lost.”

Online criticism gradually grew more direct: “The new Sino-Japanese war is another national shame!” “The east sea territories were lost under humiliating terms!” “Put aside the Senkaku Islands, usher in a New China!” “Down with the corrupt government!”

Some of these posts were deleted, but still others remained, inspiring debate amongst the populace. It was subsequently learned that the loosening of Internet supervision was not official policy, but the doing of some online censorship workers who decided to let netizens vent their anger.

The Internet discussion soon found its way onto WeChat, the mobile messaging service. Before long, web protest turned into street protests. College students started leaving their campuses in droves and held aloft their Internet slogans on banners: “The new Sino-Japanese war is another national shame!” “The east sea territories were lost under humiliating terms!” “Put aside the Senkaku Islands, usher in a New China!” “Down with the corrupt government!”

In major cities across China, regular citizens started joining the college students in the streets, first in the hundreds, then eventually in the tens of thousands and upwards. Military and police officers, armed to the teeth, were mobilized and placed on standby. But they refused to suppress the students and citizens, as though they were waiting for some kind of order.

This situation persisted for days. Posts on the Chinese Internet calling for the Chinese regime leader to resign suddenly surfaced, and these were mysteriously not censored. People realized that the top leader hadn’t made a public appearance for several days, a fact that went unreported in the press. Party media soon started carrying scholars’ reflections on the Sino-Japanese war.

Chinese scholars said: “The war could have been avoided, but some of us were unbelievers!” “Speaking truthfully, nobody provoked us. It wasn’t Japan that challenged us, but we who challenged others.” “Matters shouldn’t have reached this stage; it’s all because some members of our top leadership leaned too far left, were too stubborn and thought themselves infallible!” “Making enemies on all sides and turning all neighboring countries hostile; what sort of leadership skill is this?”

Finally, China Central Television ran a major breaking news item: The Chinese leader announced his resignation over China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese war during a Politburo meeting in Beijing. His positions of Party general secretary, premier and Central Military Commission chairman were to be taken over by other members of the present leadership—the premier would become the general secretary, the Party vice-chairman would become the chairman and the head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection would take over the military. Various news channels verified that in actuality, a coup d’etat had taken place, and the former Chinese leader, a hawk, has now been sidelined and put under house arrest. The new Chinese leadership urged national unity and stability, and called on the country to look forward.

Meanwhile, more and more Chinese citizens took the streets, calling for political reform. In all major cities, protesters turned out in the hundreds of millions and made their demands: end corruption, end dictatorship; introduce democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Which direction will China go? The world is watching.

Chen Pokong is a veteran of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement; he has authored over ten books, writes a regular column for Radio Free Asia, and is regularly invited to speak on Voice of America Chinese. This chapter was translated by Larry Ong, a China news reporter with Epoch Times based in New York City. 

Image: Japanese Ministry of Defense