09/23/2010, 00.00
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The Senkaku-Diaoyu conflict and the end of U.S. supremacy on the seas

by Maurizio d'Orlando
A disproportionate reaction from Beijing to Tokyo over a small vessel, silence over North Korea’s the act of war, in the sinking of the Cheonan. Beijing, with its missiles, is now capable of challenging U.S. aircraft carriers.

Milan (AsiaNews) - The recent conflict between China and Japan revolves around the arrest of the Chinese captain of a fishing vessel[i], found to be illegally operating in the Senkaku islands (for the Chinese: the Diaoyu) and consequently arrested (or more precisely placed in police custody). The islands have always been part of Japan and therefore a simple administrative offense should not really make news headlines. Moreover for years now, the two countries have been developing strong trade ties and are linked by a close intertwining of technology and manufacturing. The event itself is even more insignificant when compared to the far more serious episode that occurred many months ago in the same area.

Just six months ago, a deliberate act of war carried out by the armed forces of a country officially in a state of truce, not peace, was completely silenced, both by the governments concerned and, consequently, the international press. The episode in question is the sinking of the South Korea Navy warship, the Cheonan[ii], by North Korea.

The connection with China is obvious: the Pyongyang regime is a puppet state manoeuvred by China, a country with no tradition of independence, where the communist regime could not survive more than a few months without the continued support of the Chinese Communist regime. For more than sixty years, however, South Korea has been supported by the U.S., in an alliance which also includes Japan. Here lies the contradiction: one coalition will do everything in its power to silence a serious assault, the other does all it can to "stir up nationalist and anti-Japanese sentiments ", as stated by the Japanese government, over a story of minimal importance to say the least.

AsiaNews has already reported that the great majority of observers do not believe that these contrasts will harm Sino-Japanese economic ties, which are based on mutual interest and interdependence. We must therefore ask ourselves what Beijing’s real reasons are for fomenting revanchism over four fish and a handful of islands. The usual well-informed observers have a ready answer: Beijing has to appease the fury of nationalist groups at home. Frankly, even if the Chinese regime was a full democracy, the explanation seems a bit weak, given the disparity of interests that are apparently at stake.

The reality is that the balance, not only economic, in the Pacific are radically and rapidly changing. The American dominance in the area, the "Pax Americana", is hanging in the balance. Not only has the balance in relations shifted in terms of economic power, but also in military- strategic terms.

Since 1945, and in particular after the Vietnam War, the U.S. hegemony has been based on the control of the seas and its maritime supremacy, rather than on nuclear deterrence, as was the case in Europe in its confrontation with the Soviet Union. American domination of the Pacific has been, until now, guaranteed by its fleet, and by its magnificent aircraft carriers. Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the concentrated development of the Chinese navy and its projection towards the blue seas. In less poetic terms, the Chinese fleet is not only designed to protect the coastline of China and eventually to launch the reconquest of Taiwan - rebel province of the Empire or autonomous state, depending on your point of view. But according to most military observers it will take at least twenty years before crews of the Chinese blue seas fleet will be able to match the level of competence, experience and training of the American stationed in the Pacific. A low cost Chinese rocket, the 21D Dong Feng (DF 21D), is however threatening American supremacy[iii].

According to Anne Gearan[iv] , an expert on strategic issues, it is a missile that could be launched from land with enough accuracy, ten times the speed of sound,  to penetrate the defenses of even the most advanced moving aircraft carrier at a distance of more than 1,500 kilometers. Along China’s 18 thousand kilometres of the coastline, a system based on the Dong Feng 21D is enough to keep those carriers which have hitherto been the pride and the key of U.S. Pacific Fleet, since 1945, at bay. It is true that this is a weapon designed for conventional use, although it can not be excluded that it is capable of carrying a nuclear war head. However, even with a conventional use its implications are still clear and very significant for Japan and for Taiwan: in short, within a couple of years at most, the American umbrella could easily no longer be of any use.

It would take a salvo of three DF 21D to sink an aircraft carrier, such as the "George Washington", sent to protect Taiwan from a hypothetical Chinese invasion. This is according to AP (see footnote 4) which quotes a report of the effects of the salvos on an American aircraft carrier carried in an Xinhuanet article (but does not provide references).

The first DF 21D the first would pierce the hull, start fires and shut down flight operations. The second would knock out its engines and be accompanied by air attacks. The third wave would send the carrier to the bottom of the ocean. Are we witnessing the end of American dominance in the Far East and the beginning of the Chinese?  

[i] See AsiaNews, 21/09/2010, Tokyo urges Beijing to tone down rhetoric, risk of a trade war

 [ii] See AsiaNews, 22/04/2010, For South Korea, a torpedo from the North sank the ship

 [iii] See Worlsnetdaily, 9/08/2010, China ready to kill U.S. Navy carriers?

 [iv] See AP, Eric Talmadge, 5/08/ 2010, Chinese missile could shift Pacific power balance



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