09.01.2017 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Chinese Military Reclaims the Miyako Strait

4534234234On December 25, a Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, used the Strait of Miyako as a passage way out of the East China Sea into the Pacific Ocean, accompanied by five other Chinese Navy surface ships. The strait separates the eponymous island from Okinawa, the largest island of the Ryukyu archipelago, which is generally known to belong to Japan.

This more than 200 km wide strait is officially listed under international waters available for shipping to all the countries of the world and Japan cannot interfere with it.

However, being ordinary from the point of view of international law, this event provoked an increased interest not only in Japan but also in the United States. This comes in the wake of the fact that, for the past few years, the Chinese Navy has been using the Miyako Strait as an exit-passage way into the western part of the Pacific Ocean with the aim of carrying out “routine exercises”.

This recent passage through the strait has generated particular interest due to the fact that, for the first time, the group of warships included the only available Chinese aircraft carrier that “was restored” from the former (unfinished) Soviet “Varyag” that was at the disposal of Ukraine after the collapse of the USSR.

Sold to China at the end of the 90s for a certain amount, the carrier has undergone modernization, and at the end of 2012, became part of the nation’s Navy. The aircraft carrier’s main armament is a group of 24 J-15fighter aircrafts, strongly reminiscent of the Russian SU-33.

The Chinese Navy High Command stated that the main purpose for bringing the “Liaoning” into service was to acquire experience in the development and subsequent operation of a completely new and extremely complex combat system. This experience is then subsequently used in designing a new series of carriers, one of which is already under construction.

China is fully assessing the incomparability of the combat potentials of its only aircraft carrier and 11 modern US nuclear attack aircraft carriers. This is not to mention China’s lack of experience in using the aircraft carrier attack groups – the experience that the US Navy definitely has.

Nevertheless, “Liaoning” is already being used to “lift the flag high” in the South China Sea, which is perhaps the hottest zone of confrontation with the main geopolitical opponents comprising of the US and Japan.

This time, the South China Sea again became the final destination of the passage by the Chinese aircraft carrier group. Having passed the Strait of Miyako, the group went around Eastern Taiwan and entered the South China Sea through the Bashi Strait that separates this island from the Philippine archipelago.

Of particular importance to note here is that two weeks earlier, a group of two bombers and two reconnaissance aircraft (which up to the Miyako Strait were accompanied by two Chinese Navy SU-30s) had made almost the same “loop” around Taiwan (but by air). Two Japanese F-15fighter aircrafts coming from bases in Okinawa simulated an interception of the Chinese group.

It should be noted that the period of development by the Chinese military aircraft of the airspace over the Strait of Miyako has lasted for several years. However, on December 11, 2016, the Japanese Air Force for the first time simulated an interception of Chinese crafts outside its national airspace, which was the reason for the mutual picks of both countries’foreign affairs ministries.

The location and time of China’s recent actions on the Strait of Miyako give certainty to the fact that they are indeed politically motivated, and are directed as a warning message to recipients in the three capitals: Washington, Taipei and Tokyo. These “messages” include long-term as well as current strategic and tactical components.

As part of its long-term strategy, Beijing has once again made it clear that China will not tolerate the long-standing intention by the US to limit the Chinese military zone of influence on the so-called “First Island Line”, which includes the Ryukyu Archipelago, Taiwan, as well as the Philippine and Indonesian archipelagoes.

Coupled with that, with the development of its aircraft carrier fleet, the Chinese Navy will still more actively carry out activities across the entire Pacific Ocean, entering the waters through the “First Island Line”straits.

As for the political “routine”, it is impossible not to note how China took these actions at a time when Washington was busy contemplating on further foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, particularly towards its main rival in the region.

In reporting these developments, an illustrator at the Chinese Global Times has once again displayed the exact state in which the two main world players now find themselves. Looking into each other’s eyes and pressing the cards “to their orders”, they are dumping them onto the gaming table, one by one.

The US president-elect played his move in this game by having a telephone conversation with the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, whose activities in March 2016 within the capacity of the highest office of the “rebel island” caused Beijing a considerable headache.

In turn, the circumvention and fly around Taiwan at sea and by air by Chinese warships and bombers carrying nuclear weapons is a return “strike” by Beijing, which is relaying the message: “This is mine”.

Tabey is also sending a signal on the possibility of “full diplomatic isolation”, if Tsai Ing-wen continues aggravating the situation to the international arena. After such developments, it is incumbent for the Taiwanese president to tour a number of countries in Central America, with a stop in the United States.

An example of Beijing’s “response” is the recent rupture of diplomatic relations with Taiwan by the tiny African state of Sao Tome and Principe.

Finally, the increased attention by the Chinese military to the Miyako Strait is more or less directed at Tokyo. That is quite understandable, as in recent years, Japan has been playing an increasingly influential role in the regional and global political processes, meaning that the triggering factor for this trend is the perception that China is now the main source of the threats to its national interests.

Judging by the incident in the skies over this strait, Japan intends to harness other such acts of mutual military confrontation (in the Senkaku / Diaoyu and the South China Sea areas) in enhancing the role of military tools in its relations with China.

Meanwhile, Beijing has only warily accepted Japan’s new defense budget draft for 2017, particularly plans for the deployment in Okinawa of “ground-ground” missiles with a range of 300 km by 2023, which (in the case of aggravation of the situation) would be able to block access to the Miyako Strait.

Japan canal ready be viewed as the third major player at a table of the significant regional political action.

All is well as long as this fiasco continues unfolding in the manner of a card game in which, as one of the moves, the Chinese had to move their ships and fly their aircrafts into the Miyako Strait.

What matters is that the main actors do not suddenly begin casting their cards, and seize their guns.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the Internet magazine –New Eastern Outlook