Sino-Japanese Review

The Senkaku Dispute Makes a Comeback

Welcome to installment XX (August 2020) of Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column on major developments in relations between China and Japan that provides a running commentary on the evolution of this important relationship and helps to put current events in perspective. Previous installments may be found here.

The disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have been the major point of friction in Sino-Japanese relations for almost a decade. Yet for most of that period China’s challenge to Japan’s control of the islands had followed a relatively stable and manageable pattern. Chinese ships have frequently entered the Senkaku/Diaoyu’s contiguous zone.  Every ten days or so, they have pushed into the islands’ territorial waters as well. Yet, the number of intruding vessels had remained fairly constant until mid-2019. Since then, China’s presence in contiguous waters and in the skies above them has increased significantly although the number of incursions into Japanese territorial waters did not change. In fact, Chinese vessels recently recorded their longest continuous stay (more than a 100 days) in contested waters since the dispute worsened following Japan’s nationalization of the islands in 2012.

In response, Japan’s public criticism of Beijing’s assertiveness has grown. Its latest defense white paper published mid-July expressed “grave concerns” regarding China’s “relentless” attempts to unilaterally “change the status quo by coercion”. Tokyo is concerned that the lifting of an annual fishing ban in the East China Sea by Beijing on August 16th, could dispatch large numbers of fishing vessels, including some armed members of its infamous “maritime militia”. This would be consistent with earlier peaks in Chinese activities during similar periods in 2014 and 2016 and could end up overwhelming Japan’s ability to police the area.  To tackle China’s growing pressure, Japan obtained help from its U.S. ally in monitoring the contested waters and airspace and has put its military on standby to help respond to any massive intrusion. Meanwhile, long term efforts to upgrade its power projection capabilities to the furthest reaches of its territory are also steadily progressing.

Japan’s long term efforts to upgrade its power projection capabilities to the furthest reaches of its territory are steadily progressing

What explains China’s increased assertiveness around the Senkaku/Diaoyu at a time when Japan stands out for its relatively moderate attitude? Neither the Chinese authorities nor its state media have said much about the dispute recently. When asked, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman limited himself to the usual rejection of Japanese criticism and affirmation of China’s “inherent” sovereignty over the islands. Nonetheless, regardless of the absence of official justification, China’s escalatory moves fit within the parameters of its contemporary foreign policy. More specifically, they can be explained by a combination of its growing capabilities and the unsettled geopolitical context.

China’s long-term goal to fatally weaken Japan’s control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu has been evident for some time, and a gradual increase in pressure was to be expected. China may deploy more ships for longer in the disputed area simply because it can. It has steadily increased production of bigger vessels now capable of braving the capricious waters of the East China Sea regardless of weather conditions. As a result, Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) ships can now stay further from shore for extended periods of time. It is easier for them to maintain a constant presence around the Senkaku/Diaoyu without diverting resources from other contended areas in the South China Sea. The CCG sees its mission as to defend China’s “inherent territory” against other claimants and does not require specific instructions to more forcefully challenge Japan.

It is easier for China to maintain a constant presence around the Senkaku/Diaoyu without diverting resources from other contended areas in the South China Sea

In any case, dramatically worsening tensions between China and the U.S. give plenty of incentives for the Chinese leadership to order an expansion of maritime (and aerial) activities in the East China Sea. In recent weeks and months, the Trump administration has signaled its intentions to confront China in all ways imaginable, including in the security realm. Beijing may then justify a show of force to signal its resolve to forcefully counter the intensification of “hostile” military activities taking place in its near seas. Japan, who as a staunch U.S. ally has often expressed support for a strong American military presence in East Asia, is a natural target of such a show of force, even if it has not made any escalatory moves regarding its dispute with China. The Chinese reflex when it feels its “core interests” relating to territory and sovereignty are threatened is to typically double down and strengthen its hand through coercive means. IndiaHong Kong, and Taiwan have all recently been targets of such tactics.

It is interesting to consider how different the situation could have been, had the coronavirus pandemic not disrupted the Sino-Japanese diplomatic calendar, and had Xi Jinping made his state visit to Japan as planned this Spring, along possibly, with a second visit for the opening ceremony of the Olympic games. In this scenario, Japan would likely have been spared by China’s recent pressure tactics for the sake of a smooth visit. This suggests that diplomacy could indeed give Japan some breathing space in disputed areas, but is also a reminder of how fragile and ephemeral such gains would be. After all, China started sending more ships last year already when the Sino-Japanese diplomatic rapprochement was in full swing. No amount of dialogue seems able to dissuade Beijing from pursuing its strategy of slowly chipping away at Tokyo’s control of the disputed islands. Only a forceful demonstration of Japan’s capacity and willingness to counter whatever pressure China applies could potentially induce Beijing to seek a negotiated solution. Considering China’s ever-expanding capabilities, it is unclear whether such a demonstration is even possible.

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Antoine Roth is assistant professor at the Faculty of Law of Tohoku University, working on Sino-Japanese relations, China's foreign relations, and East Asian international affairs. He holds a PhD in International Politics from the University of Tokyo and a MA in Asian Studies from the George Washington University and a BA in International Relations from the University of Geneva. He has previously worked at the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo and has been a visiting student at Fudan University in Shanghai.

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Andrea A. Fischetti is a government scholar conducting research on Asia-Pacific Affairs and East Asian Security at the University of Tokyo and at the Asia Pacific Initiative. He was a visiting student at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University, and a research assistant at the House of Commons in the British Parliament. Mr. Fischetti earned his MA in War Studies from King’s College London, following a BA with First Class Honours in International Relations, Peace and Conflict Studies.

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