China Finds a Gap in Japan’s Maritime Chokepoints

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Vessels roam the waters of East China Sea during a naval drill, October 19, 2012.

TOKYO – A flotilla of Chinese warships transited an important ocean strait off Japan’s northernmost island for the first time this week, passing within clear sight of observers onshore.

The PLA Navy vessels had just completed a major training exercise with Russian warships nearby and were using the Soya Strait to head into the far Pacific. It was just the latest Chinese excursion through narrow and potentially-strategic transit points in and around Japan’s home islands, and another example of China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

But here’s the thing: they couldn’t have done it had Japan not decided, some 40 years ago, to claim territorial waters that extend only three miles out to sea, far less than allowed under international law. And if you guessed that this has something to do with allowing America’s nuclear-armed warships to use those same narrow straits – well, you’re right.

Call it an unintended consequence of the Cold War.

The five PLAN warships – two destroyers, two frigates and a supply ship — were spotted Sunday in the Soya Strait, a narrow gap between the northern tip of Hokkaido and the southern tip of Russia’s Sakhalin Island.  It was the first time that ships from China’s growing navy have ventured into that waterway. The Soya Strait is one of just two passages from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean, and was considered a key chokepoint by Cold War naval planners.

The Japan Maritime Self Defense Force still patrols the area regularly by air and sea, and operates surveillance facilities ashore.

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By sticking to the southern, non-Russian half of the strait, the PLAN ships remained within international waters. Although they reportedly made a quick passage into the Pacific, they were under no obligation to do so. Under international law, they could have conducted surveillance or research activities, carried out training or live-fire exercises, or just taken a fishing break. All within peering distance of Japanese farmland.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

As Tetsuo Kotani, a maritime security specialist at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, in Tokyo, explains it, the Japanese government was searching for a way to allow the U.S. Navy to transport nuclear weapons through Japanese waters without violating Japan’s post-war “Three Non-Nuclear Principles.” Those principles, still in effect, forbid Japan from making or possessing nuclear weapons, or allowing them to be brought into Japanese territory.

By claiming just a three-mile limit instead of the maximum 12 miles, the Japanese were able to maintain a strip of international water through the Soya Strait, also known as the La Perouse Strait, and three other key transit points: the Tsuruga, Tsukishima and Osumi straits.

By sticking to those narrow channels, American aircraft carriers and submarines could steam back and forth at will, laden with nuclear warheads and maintaining America’s nuclear deterrence, without violating Japanese policy. A technicality, sure, but it worked. (The Navy, by the way, never confirms or denies that its ships carry nuclear weapons.)

(Technical digression: Under international law, ships – including warships – are allowed “innocent passage” through another country’s territorial waters. Essentially, that means they can sail from Point A to Point B, but cannot conduct any other activities along on the way; submarines are required to sail on the surface, flying their country’s national flag.)

(Technical digression II: Most nations, including Japan, also claim a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. It is generally accepted that ships cannot conduct economic-related activity in another country’s EEZ, but that all other activities, including military, are allowed. China generally has argued that foreign military activity is not permitted in territory it claims as its EEZ, but there has been some evidence lately that it may be easing off on this interpretation.)

Chinese military or research ships have passed through the Tsuruga, Tsukishima and Osumi straits in recent years – legally, mind you — in what Japanese authorities say have been thinly veiled reconnaissance missions.

Alessio Patalano, a lecturer in War Studies at King’s College, London, and an authority on Japanese naval strategy and history, says it’s not surprising that the Chinese have finally ventured into the Soya Strait.

“Over the past half a decade the PLAN has been investing in building up its material and professional skills and, therefore, it is only natural that we’re seeing more of the fleet at sea conducting exercises and training. This is a trend that is unlikely to change,” says Patalano, who is currently lecturing in Beijing.

Kotani agrees, but says it’s not a major problem, yet. The JMSDF has been patrolling its narrow straits – and training to keep them open or closed, as necessary – since the 1980s.

“The PLAN will continue to increase its naval activities near Japan, but as long as we maintain monitoring capabilities, we don’t  have to worry too much,” says Kotani.

Unless, of course, the Chinese decide to carry nukes through those narrow channels.