Are Elevated Tensions in the East China Sea the New Normal?

By Amrita Jash —

A U.S. Navy Sea Hawk helicopter and the Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces destroyer JS Sazanami operating in the East China Sea on March 7, 2017. Source: U.S. Pacific Fleet’s flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

On July 23, two Chinese J-10 fighter aircraft intercepted a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane over the East China Sea. As reported,  one of the Chinese aircraft  flew dangerously close to the U.S. plane – running the risk of an accidental collision.

Expounding it as an “unsafe” scenario, Pentagon spokesman U.S. Navy Captain Jeff Davis called it “uncharacteristic of the normal safe behavior” of the Chinese military. However, a Chinese spokesperson  called the action “legal, necessary and professional.”  China categorically pointed out that the EP-3 aircraft “threatened China’s national security, damaged the military safety between two countries and put the pilots of both countries in danger.” The Chinese government has urged the United States to “immediately stop” all close-in surveillance activities and avoid a recurrence of such an incident. This incident serves as a reminder of a long term pattern of the brimming tensions in the East China Sea.

What does it signify? The dispute has mainly centered on the tensions between China and Japan based on two issues: First, over competing sovereignty claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and, second, over China’s and Japan’s overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and continental shelves in the East China Sea. Given these clash of interests, both China and Japan have constantly tested each other’s resolve in the disputed sea. Beijing has used its coast guard vessels as well as armed naval frigates to undertake assertive maneuvers in the East China Sea. In response, Japan has ramped up its coast guard and Maritime Self-Defense Force presence to safeguard its claimed territorial waters. Moreover, both sides are also involved in frequent fighter jet scrambles, which hit a record high 1,168 times over the past 12 months, up from 873 in calendar year 2016.

Against this backdrop, the friction between China and the United States has added a new dimension to the tension. Further ratcheting the accidental risks of confrontation in the East China Sea, the dispute has drawn new actors into play. So far, the U.S. challenge to China’s military assertiveness was mainly visible in the South China Sea theater where China and the United States are already challenging each other’s strategic space. However, with this development, Sino-U.S. tension in the East China Sea are likely to rise, not fade.

What is noteworthy is that the China-U.S. friction came against the backdrop of a lukewarm improvement of ties between China and Japan.  Following talks on July 8 between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, both sides agreed to build “stable” relations by reaffirming their “readiness to strengthen the partnership and cooperation between the two countries in the future despite differences in a trove of issues and severe challenges ahead.” However, whether Beijing’s and Tokyo’s commitment is rhetorical or real remains an open question.

The talks seem to have caused no attitudinal change. Following the leader’s meeting, China’s Defense Ministry strongly warned Japan to “get used to” China’s military exercises in waters around Japan. This statement was followed by long-range drills carried out by the Chinese air force as it flew six Xian H6-K bombers through the Miyako Strait — the Japanese waterway that lies between Miyako Island and Okinawa Island. Though Japan’s sovereign airspace was not violated, Tokyo scrambled fighter jets in response. More recently, China flew eight H-6 strategic bombers and two Shaanxi Y-8 drone aircraft carriers over airspace near Taiwan to the Miyako Strait. These recurrent actions exemplify China’s expanding ambitions and operational reach. In response, Japan has upped the ante by increasing the fighter jets based in Okinawa to counter China’s probes. Moreover, the United States has consistently refused to accept China’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over East China Sea and has often challenged it by carrying out routine operations in the international airspace.

With the interplay of heightened ambitions and greater intensity on the part of China, Japan, and United States, the East China Sea disputes face new risks of miscalculation and undesired accidents. China’s increasing power projection and military muscle flexing — a trend that will only accelerate, posits more frequent and dangerous challenges to U.S. surveillance. With more forward military push, there remains less space for negotiation. Under this rubric, elevated tensions in the East China Sea may represent a “new normal” in the international arena.

Ms. Amrita Jash is Editor-in-Chief at IndraStra Global, New York. She pursued a Ph.D in Chinese Studies from the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi-India. She can be reached at: @amritajash or www.amritajash.in.

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