The Struggle for Mastery of the Pacific

TOKYO – On May 1, the Shanghai Expo began, illuminated by a huge fireworks display. The festivities will continue until the end of October. In 1970, Japan celebrated its own tremendous postwar economic growth with the Osaka Expo, as well as by launching the Bullet Train. The world watches and wonders whether China will follow Japan’s path and emerge as a fully modern yet peacefully inclined country.

There are reasons to doubt that it will. China’s willingness to demonstrate its new might is not confined to land; on the contrary, China’s maritime ambitions have no end in sight. Indeed, when Admiral Timothy J. Keating, the commander of the United States Navy’s Pacific fleet, visited China in 2007, a high-ranking Chinese naval officer proposed that the two countries demarcate a “zone of control” at Hawaii, defining the limits of US naval influence and the beginning of China’s maritime sphere. The Chinese navy, it is now believed, is trying to achieve that very aim.

China’s ambition is marked by muscle flexing. On April 8, a helicopter from a Chinese naval vessel operating in international waters south of Okinawa came within 90 meters of a Japanese Self-Defense Force escort ship – so close that a gun-wielding Chinese soldier was clearly visible. Japan protested, describing the incident as an “extremely dangerous act.”

As if demonstrating its intention to ignore the protest, on April 21 Chinese Navy vessels sailed northward, between Okinawa and the Miyako islands, and conducted a large-scale exercise. Once again, a Chinese military helicopter circled a Japanese escort ship.