China’s most powerful military leader, in an unusual public statement, last week ordered military forces to prepare for combat, as Chinese warships deployed to waters near the disputed Senkakus / Diaoyu islands and anti-Japan protests throughout the country turned violent.
Protests against the Japanese government’s purchase of three privately held islands in the Senkakus chain led to mass street protests, the burning of Japanese flags, and attacks on Japanese businesses and cars in several cities. Some carried signs that read “Kill all Japanese,” and “Fight to the Death” over disputed islands. One sign urged China to threaten a nuclear strike against Japan.
Gen. Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, considered the most senior military political commissar, said Friday that military forces should be “prepared for any possible military combat,” state run Xinhua news agency reported.
Xu said during a visit to military units near Taiyuan, in the northern province of Shanxi, “efforts should be made to ensure that the military is capable of resolutely performing its duty to safeguard the country’s national sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity whenever it is needed by the Party and the people.”
A U.S. official said the PLA’s most senior political general rarely makes such direct appeals to troops to prepare for combat.
Heightened tensions over the Senkakus come as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in China Monday.
Panetta, in comments made in Japan shortly before traveling to China, said, “We are concerned by the demonstrations, and we are concerned by the conflict that is taking place over the Senkaku islands.”
“The message I have tried to convey is we have to urge calm and restraint on all sides,” he said, noting any “provocation” could produce a “blow up.”
“We stand by our treaty obligations,” Panetta said, echoing a similar commitment made during a 2010 standoff between Beijing and Tokyo over the Senkakus. ”They’re longstanding, and that has not changed.”
China claims the islands as its territory and calls them the Diaoyu islands. The Chinese claim that: “The Diaoyou Islands and their affiliated islets have been China’s inherent territory since ancient times, and their surrounding waters are China’s traditional fishing ground.” The Japanese who have controlled the islands for almost a century understand that: “Whoever controls these sea lanes can dominate Asia—and beyond—by choking off that commerce and oil shipments to the major Asian markets.
China first made its claims during the mid-1970s after a 1968 study by experts discovered that oil reserves might be found under the sea near the islands.
Japan took control of the islands during the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894-1895, and was formally ceded the islands by the Treaty of Shimonoseki.
Last week, following the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the Senkakus from private Japanese owners, six Chinese maritime security ships were deployed near the Senkaku islands, further heightening tensions.
This growing crisis is compounded by a senior advisor to the Chinese government calling for an attack on the Japanese bond market to precipitate a funding crisis and bring the country to its knees, unless Tokyo reverses its decision to nationalize the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.
The Communist Party newspaper China Daily, called on China to invoke the “security exception” rule under the World Trade Organization to punish Japan, rejecting arguments that a trade war between the two Pacific giants would be mutually destructive.
Separately, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reported that China is drawing up plans to cut off Japan’s supplies of rare earth metals needed for hi-tech its industry.
The islands are included within the US Japan Security Treaty meaning that a defense of the islands by Japan may compel support from the United States military.
The conflict over the islands could take one or two forms—economic conflict or military conflict, or both. In either case the conflict will involve the US. If the conflict is military, as noted, the US is obligated to support Japan. If the conflict is purely economic it portends a dramatic impact on the US economy, but more importantly it signals the Chinese willingness to use the vast amounts of US debt as leverage to achieve what it wants.