East China Sea Dispute is Getting Worse not Better

By Amrita Jash —

Chinese surveillance ships patrol the waters near the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Source: Asitimes' flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Chinese surveillance ships patrol the waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Source: Asitimes’ flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Following a temporary thaw in China-Japan relations after the 2015 Security Talks, maritime territorial tensions have ramped up again in the East China Sea. In the recent talks between Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe summit meeting (ASEM) in Mongolia, Abe raised concerns over China’s expanding military activity in the East China Sea.

With China’s growing naval activism through increased incursions by coast guard vessels and jet fighters in surrounding waters and airspace, Japan too has upped its defensive posture. In 2015 Chinese incursions into Japan’s airspace prompted a record-high 571 fighter scrambles, elevating Japanese concerns. Since December 2015, China has stepped up its militarization of the area by deploying Chinese navy vessels at various instances in the contiguous zone around the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. In response, Japan has switched on a radar station in the East China Sea, giving it a permanent intelligence gathering post close to Taiwan and the disputed islands. Japan has furthermore deployed 12 coastguard vessels – successively increasing its fleet presence against China’s upped ante. Even the recent diplomatic talks between China and Japan have failed to de-escalate the tensions. China has stepped up the pressure by dispatching a Jiangkai-1 class frigate to patrol for the first time, followed by another episode of intrusion by a Dongdiao-class reconnaissance ship that entered the contiguous zone of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

This string of events has increased the potential volatility of the East China Sea dispute. The accidental risk of a military confrontation between China and Japan in the tensed waters has heightened. The diplomatic failure on either side to adopt a maritime crisis management mechanism further increases the risk. This makes the East China Sea dispute only more complicated and therefore, achieving a resolution seems evermore unlikely.

The dispute’s status? It is complicated between China and Japan with two major elements in dispute. First, the competing sovereignty claims over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands remain fractious. Second, this dispute also entails a maritime border claim over where China and Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) — based off the opposing coasts and mainly to the north — extend to in the East China Sea, causing an overlap of the EEZs. The logical way to settle the dispute is by judicial arbitration, but for China and Japan, there exists little chance that an international tribunal will be able to examine the dispute. Beijing wants to establish its own jurisdiction in the East China Sea by challenging Japan’s administrative control over the islands. In contrary, Japan sees no dispute in its administrative control of the islands as part of the 1972 Okinawa revision agreement. Therefore, in this case, a judicial settlement of the East China Sea dispute is likely out of the question.

What makes matters worse in the East China Sea are the actors involved. As both China and Japan are strong powers with roughly equal military capacities — two tigers sitting on the same mountain. In such a situation, the prospect of a Sino-Japanese conflict in the East China Sea is more likely to occur. There is a clash of interests that is both material as well as ideational in nature. Material interests are based on who takes control of what – fisheries, hydrocarbons, oil and natural gas; while ideational interests lie in the pride of gaining control over territory which is interlinked to the identity. Most importantly, for China, loss of territory to Japan compels its erstwhile victimhood in the hands of Japanese imperialist aggression to resurface. In addition, domestic politics and nationalist spirit in both China and Japan leaves less room for any diplomatic compromise.

With the long dead 2008 Consensus on the East China Sea, there remains no active binding mechanism to defuse the escalating tensions. The real risk of escalation remains any form of accidents at sea given the Chinese navy’s increased military activities compounded by Japan’s militarization through intelligence and surveillance tactics as well as increasing fleet presence and antimissile facilities. All this contributes to the heightened prospect of a military calamity.

To avoid a tragedy, China and Japan need to tone down their military activities and adopt proactive confidence building measures. An unintended confrontation could impose heavy economic, military, and reputational costs on both countries. A prompt de-escalation is needed for restoring stability in the East China Sea.  Since there is no quick fix to the broader problem a crisis mechanism needs to be reached to quell the dangers. This can be done by implementing tacit agreements, making the security talks a regular practice, facilitating track-two dialogues and joint-military exercises, and formulating a maritime code of conduct. But such measures can only be reached through building of trust — which remains the biggest fault line in the China-Japan relations.

Therefore, with the pressure building in the East China Sea, if anything, the dispute between China and Japan only seems likely to get worse without a channel to reduce tension.

Ms. Amrita Jash is a Doctoral Candidate in Chinese Studies at the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. Follow her on twitter @amritajash. She can be reached at ajash108@gmail.com.

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5 comments for “East China Sea Dispute is Getting Worse not Better

  1. Curt
    July 25, 2016 at 23:32

    Just to put things in perspective, having ships and aircraft patrol in the contiguous zone, EEZ, or ADIZ merely means that they are operating in international waters and airspace. In fact, the Chinese actions, far from somehow asserting Chinese Sovereignity or challenging Japanese control are actually establishing a pattern of recognition of Japanese waters extending from the islands. Challenging the Chinese actions in the way proposed would merely confirm to China that their singular moronic interpretation of the Law of the Sea is accurate. Instead, much as the US did when Chinese ships conducted innocent passage in the Aleutians or operated off Hawaii, the Japanese should continue to assert their control, recognize that China has every right to operate there, and acknowledge the fact that the Chinese have not entered Japanese territorial waters or airspace, establishing a de facto recognition of Japanese Sovreignity. Also, they should then point to the stark contrast between their actions and the clearly illegal action of the Chinese in regards to the SCS.

  2. venze
    July 26, 2016 at 21:08

    As if South China Sea has not been contentious enough, the focus re-emerges on East China Sea. Could Japan’s military be as powerful as China’s without US support? Is East China Sea dispute worsening? Avoid making sweeping judgement to instigate new trouble, please, the current global scenario is already gravitating to madness.

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