Guest Post: “Five Columns, Three Warfares, One East-Asia Under China: The Invisible Infiltration of Japan”

Today’s post by Army judge advocate Major Alec Rice alerts us to formidable security concerns occasioned by seemingly benign Chinese real estate and business transactions involving the Japanese island of Hokkaido. 

Major Rice, a previous Lawfire® contributor (see here) who is writing in his personal capacity, contends that such dealings can enhance the “ability of the PRC [Peoples Republic of China] to monitor and influence activity in areas of Hokkaido such as the port city of Kushiro” and that this “has significant national security implications for the U.S.-Japan Alliance and the stability of East Asia.”

I urge you to invest a few minutes to take in his thought-provoking argument!

Five Columns, Three Warfares, One East-Asia Under China:  

The Invisible Infiltration of Japan

by Maj Alec Rice, USA*

 “The Chinese Communist Party Co., Ltd.”

     The international community has gradually recognized the Belt and Road Initiative as a predatory economic and diplomatic policy utilized by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to target and “debt-trap” third-world nations for its own strategic advantage.

     However, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) international inroads are not limited to developing countries. They also extend to the world’s most wealthy and powerful nations, to include key U.S. allies and even the U.S itself. 

     Of particular concern in East Asia, Beijing has been highly successful in quietly establishing a growing footprint within Japan for the past 20-plus years. Arguably the United States’ most strategically important military ally, Japan is the world’s third-largest economy and the foreign nation which hosts the most U.S. military troops in the world.    

Hokkaido (in red)
Source: Wikipedia

     Emblematic of this silent incursion the PRC has put particular emphasis on purchasing land, establishing local economic ties, and increasing the presence of PRC citizens on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.

     This northernmost island of Japan is a key geopolitical region for People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and commercial shipping access from the Chinese mainland through the Sea of Japan to the Pacific and Arctic Oceans beyond. 

     Such PRC-controlled overseas enclaves, in Japan and elsewhere, have the potential to function as prepositionedFifth Columns”:  CCP-controlled cells capable of clandestine political influence, intelligence collection, espionage activities, and rapid militarization at Beijing’s behest.

    In the event of a major overt PRC military action, such as a Taiwanese takeover or a Senkaku Islands crisis, the U.S. and Japan should anticipate that Beijing will utilize these overseas cells in both obvious and unexpected ways to subvert allied success.

     The U.S., Japan, and other concerned nations of the international community would be well-served to consider the potential activities of these domestic PRC Fifth Columns and integrate those considerations into their Pacific defense planning calculus.

Japan in the Crosshairs: The People’s Republic of Hokkaido?

     Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido is home to rich natural resources, fertile farmland, plentiful clean water, undeveloped open space, extensive forests, and abundant ocean fishing.

     Moreover, its geographic location in the northern First Island Chain between the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Pacific Ocean make it a tantalizing strategic objective for the PRC. Control of Hokkaido allows for access to significant natural resources, expansive lebensraum, and open ocean pathways from the Asian mainland to the world.

     While People’s Liberation Army Naval (PLAN) activity near Hokkaido, to include increased cooperation with the Russian Armed Forces, has been alarming, the PRC’s economic expansion and land purchases in Hokkaido are even more concerning. 

     With its rapidly aging citizenry, declining population, and corresponding economic stagnation, Hokkaido has been an easy mark for a massive influx of PRC-connected financial investment over the past two decades. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic PRC citizens have increased real-estate purchases in Hokkaido, which suffers from a dearth of workers.

     In recent years PRC-connected purchases of land in Hokkaido have notably occurred near the Chitose Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) base and a joint Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) intelligence-gathering site in the town of Wakkanai on the Soya Strait.

     Such PRC-connected investments are particularly worrying as the Japanese press recently reported that Hokkaido is a future candidate location for a new Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) Hypervelocity Gliding Projectile standoff missile unit to be stood up in the next few years.

     The intelligence-gathering and espionage potential of PRC land purchases near Japan Self-Defense Force and US bases is clear. However, the PRC has also been strategically positioning itself in Hokkaido cloaked in the mantle of purely private financial investment.

     Emblematic of this phenomenon, PRC interests have been fervently engaging with the port city of Kushiro on Hokkaido’s Pacific coast to bring it into the fold of its Belt and Road Initiative and Polar Silk Road strategies.

     Kushiro, a North Pacific port city in eastern Hokkaido, has increasingly fallen on tough economic times and become a target for PRC-connected entities. PRC official guests at events hosted by the Kushiro Japan-China Friendship Association are actively touting the city as “the Singapore of the north” and aggressively encouraging PRC investment and business ties with the city. 

     In addition to land near JSDF bases and strategically valuable ports, PRC interests continue to purchase extensive tracts of land throughout Hokkaido and leave them curiously undeveloped.

     The purpose of these land purchases is unclear. One reason could be ensuring future PRC access to natural resources such as timber, clean water, and coal. Another possibility is that such land purchases are a part of PRC Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy to preemptively deny Japan (or U.S.) military development and use of these areas in the future.

     Some in Japan, to include TAKAICHI Sanae, the current Japanese Minister of State for Economic Security, have sounded the alarm that another reason behind these land purchases may be to create autonomous PRC communities and future administrative and military footholds within Japanese territory which could later be overtly “activated” by Beijing through the PRC National Defense Mobilization Law (NDML).

     The PRC NDML states that male citizens between ages 18 and 60 and females between 18 and 55 are subject to mobilization if “state sovereignty, unification, territorial integrity or security is threatened.”

     Because the PRC NDML provides no exemption for those PRC citizens residing or travelling overseas, such persons could effectively be pre-staged in foreign nations and both they and their overseas property mustered to serve the State when the CCP determines it necessary.

“Darwinizing” Japan:  Implications for Japan, the U.S., and East Asian Security

     The ability of the PRC to monitor and influence activity in areas of Hokkaido such as the port city of Kushiro has significant national security implications for the U.S.-Japan Alliance and the stability of East Asia.

     In the long-term, PRC presence, to include economic and political influence, in port cities in Hokkaido aids and abets PRC-connected shipping access.

    This in turn paves the way for PLAN ingress and egress from the Sea of Japan to the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. Such commercial and military shipping access would likely include future linkage with Russian Armed Forces and developing commercial interests connected to the Arctic.

     Perhaps of more immediate concern, however, in a PRC campaign to physically occupy Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands mobilized PRC cells in Hokkaido could be put to devastating effect to hinder a Japanese armed response.

     Hokkaido is home to the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) Northern Army, consisting of two Divisions and two Brigades in addition to numerous other troops and assets.

     If Hokkaido ports were used to move JGSDF troops and/or materiel by ship in a contingency, PRC-mobilized CCP-connected entities would be perfectly situated to gather intelligence and conduct espionage on these deployments. Similar concerns have been voiced in recent years regarding PRC economic influence in the port city of Darwin, Australia, where U.S. Marines have a rotational presence.

     For its part, after years of alarms being sounded by Japanese journalists and academics, the Government of Japan (GOJ) has slowly begun to realize the extent and danger of PRC incursions into its territory and started to take legislative action.

     In September of 2022 a new Japanese law, the Act on the Review and Regulation of the Use of Real Estate Surrounding Important Facilities and on Remote Territorial Islands, placed registration requirements and use limitations on some Japanese land purchases.

     This law was influenced by other nations’ restrictions and monitoring of the purchase of real estate by foreign entities that could have national security implications, such as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). However, the Japanese law’s geographic scope only applies to designated “monitored areas” within 1,000 meters of “important facilities.”

     These important facilities include JSDF and U.S. military bases, Japan Coast Guard facilities, border islands, and Cabinet-designated critical infrastructure facilities (such as nuclear power plants).  Of concern, any other Japanese real estate purchases by foreign interests outside of this 1,000-meter range still have virtually no GOJ oversight or restrictions.

The PRC:  Weaponizing a Diaspora

     The PRC has gained notoriety the past several years for its Three Warfares concept. The use of the fields of psychology, the media, and the law as weapons to achieve strategic aims is emblematic of Grey Zone activity and hybrid warfare. Part of the efficacy of these strategies is that they intentionally blur the customary notion of what war itself is.

     Given the PRC’s expansive concept of warfare itself, there is no reason to believe that PRC-connected rural overseas land purchases, foreign economic investment, and short-term or long-term travel and residence abroad by PRC citizens (be it to Japan, the U.S., or elsewhere) are not also potential forms of PRC State weaponry.

     Seen from this viewpoint the PRC’s creation of overseas cells and enclaves, in the form of foreign-based agricultural businesses, law-enforcement related “Overseas Police Service Centers or educational Confucius Institutes, appear in a much more ominous light.

     The international community should not see such organizations as private entities autonomously engaging in overseas activities completely independent of the CCP.

Instead, they should be viewed as parts of a cohesive hegemonic multi-faceted strategy shrewdly calculated towards advancing PRC civilizational suzerainty of East Asia and beyond. This is equally true whether these and other Fifth Columns are established in Kushiro, Hokkaido; Canberra, Australia; the Solomon Islands; Milan, Italy; Hollywood, California; or Grand Forks, North Dakota.

     While the U.S., Japan, and allied and partner nations strive to deter an overt military action by the PRC in East Asia, they risk ignoring the possibility that the attack is already coming in the form of a pervading presence within.  For the communist and totalitarian PRC every citizen is seen as an agent of the State, and every tool at its disposal is also a potential weapon of war.

The Belt and Roadkill Initiative?

     Poor and powerless countries are low-hanging fruit for the PRC. Smaller nations necessarily lack the variety of choices available to wealthy and powerful nations. In this modern age of Great Power Competition this is unfortunate, but not surprising.

     The U.S. and Japan, however, are the first and third largest economies in the world, with the first and soon-to-be third largest defense budgets in the world. The current era demands responsibility from these two nations commensurate with their economic and military power.

     Japan has recently taken revolutionary national security steps. These include recent extensive revisions to its National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Defense Buildup Program.

     These three security documents announced to the world revolutionary changes in Japan’s defense,  including a massive increase of its defense budget to 2% of GDP within 5 years and development of standoff missile “counterstrike capability.”

     While these military changes are a laudable response to Japan’s precarious geographical proximity to Russia, North Korea, and the PRC, it is equally important that Tokyo and Washington become similarly concerned about threats from within Japan’s (and the United States’) borders.    

     Recognizing that in an authoritarian, totalitarian state there is such a thing as a purely civilian private financial enterprise free of central government ties and influence, the U.S., Japan, and the entire international community need to react both stronger and faster.

     Washington should prioritize working with Tokyo and the greater international community to recognize the potential security implications of these overseas PRC Fifth Columns and take measures to expeditiously nullify them using the entire range of soft and hard power capabilities.

     The threat the PRC poses to the U.S.-Japan Alliance is deceptive and not limited to military sources of power. Nor is the PRC’s East-Asian hegemonic strategy necessarily neatly stove-piped and compartmentalized into orderly Western philosophical concepts. Washington, Tokyo, and the international community should consider that for the PRC every open avenue is an angle to gain competitive advantage—economic, political, cultural, as well as military.

     The PRC is advancing its agenda not only from all external approaches but also from inside its adversaries’ borders. This is a reality that both the U.S.-Japan Alliance, and the entire community of like-minded nations, must recognize and prepare for together, lest they find themselves throttled by the PRC’s Belt and rundown in the Road.

About the Author

Major Alec Rice is an active-duty Judge Advocate in the U.S. Army. He is a graduate of the 66th Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Command and General Staff Course and formerly the Chief of National Security Law for U.S. Forces, Japan.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army. The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect my views or those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  See also here.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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