Steering away from the rocks: Japan-China relations in the East China Sea

Professor Chris Hughes

Chris Hughes suggests that investing in diplomatic and economic ties would give both parties an incentive to avoid the high costs of military escalation.

The Sino-Japanese dispute over the sovereignty of the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islets (Diaoyutai, in Chinese) in the East China Sea hit international headlines last week. In late November China declared an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) around the islets in a bid to further its territorial claim. Since then, both Japanese and US air forces have flown in this air space in clear defiance of the zone: China allegedly scrambling its fighter jets in response has attracted international speculation about the possibility of a clash involving the three biggest military powers in the East Asia region.

Japan perceives China as pursuing its territorial claims through a campaign of psychological intimidation. Japan has used its highly capable, but civilian, Japan Coast Guard (JCG) in response. But since 2010 China has increasingly sent People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels into the waters around the islets, leading Japan to shadow these with its own Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) ships. The ADIZ initiated by China has now expanded military involvement to include air as well as naval forces, and so heightened the possibilities for a military miscalculation on both sides. When the PLAN locked its radar onto an MSDF destroyer in January 2013, this was exactly the type of action that could result in a military exchange.

Japan stakes its claim on international law in general: the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty and 1972 US reversion of the Ryukyus chain to Japan, including the Senkaku islets, and the absence of any tacit understanding with China that a territorial dispute exists.  China claims the Senkaku islets were seized by Japan during its period of colonial expansion and that Japan should surrender them under the WWII agreements for Japan to return territories taken by aggression. China also claims that Japan has acknowledged in the past that a dispute exists, but agreed that both sides would defer discussion until later years.

Japan argues that China has broken the status quo that has been in place since the early 1990s by explicitly laying claim to the islets in its national territorial laws, and more recently through its maritime actions. China says that Japan has ruptured the status quo by asserting that there is no territorial dispute and, therefore, nothing to discuss with China. For both sides there is little room for domestic political maneuvering: this is an issue of national sovereignty and both Governments are keen to prove their nationalist credentials.

However, in spite of having increased both rhetoric and action recently, both sides are aware of the security stakes. Japan has pledged to respond in a firm but non-provocative manner to China’s attempts to exert its presence and undermine Japanese control of the islets. Even current Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, intent on asserting a stronger nationalist and defence profile for Japan, has held back from his electoral pledges to station government officials on the uninhabited islands.

Abe has not been able to hold a summit with China in the twelve months since taking office, and his predecessors found it equally hard to initiate dialogue with the country’s most important neighbour. Instead, Japan has turned towards its alliance with the US for support. The US takes no position on the sovereignty of the islands, but has indicated that as the islands are under Japanese administration they are within the scope of its military obligations to Japan under the US-Japan security treaty. US officials have strongly repeated these assurances following China’s declaration of the ADIZ. Japan’s policy-makers are still anxious that the US might abandon its duties to Japan if China takes the Senkaku islets out of Japanese administrative control and beyond the scope of the security treaty. However, they have drawn comfort from US statements and have moved to upgrade the bilateral alliance.

Even so, Japan has not used this security alliance as a platform for improving diplomatic relations with China, but seems to be relying on it as a substitute for engagement with its neighbour. This is surely hazardous for both Japan, making it more reliant on the US alliance, and for China, whose actions push Japan closer to the US and validate the US’ ‘rebalance’ towards Asia. The reactions of other East Asian states to China’s ADIZ have not helped its deteriorating reputation in the region.

These maximalist positions have hampered political and diplomatic dialogue. Japan and China have both backed themselves into corners on the question of sovereignty and as military tensions have increased, the compensatory political and diplomatic mechanisms have become less and less effective. Both sides will probably have to live with constant patrols around the islands and a stand-off for years to come, but they need to at least de-escalate the activity to a lower tempo and get a proper crisis management system. This means a hotline between leaders to cool off any confrontations between militaries. So far, both countries have shown themselves unwilling to negotiate, which heightens the risk of actions within the zone being interpreted as aggressive or military action by the other side. As it currently stands, the danger of rapid escalation increases daily.

Averting a military confrontation requires effective action from politicians and diplomats to establish regular dialogue and support peaceful channels such as trade and finance. That is, to focus on activities that benefit both countries and can help to stabilise relations. Diplomatic exchanges may also create the conditions for both sides to step back from their respective red lines, reduce the prominence of the dispute in their bilateral relations, and give the diplomats and politicians room to be more creative in preventing the dispute from escalating.

2 thoughts on “Steering away from the rocks: Japan-China relations in the East China Sea”

  1. The puzzle is, what is China up to? We can almost hear all that soft-power oozing away like ice-cream under heat. Perhaps China is mad, perhaps president Xi got out of bed on the wrong side, perhaps the CCP feels the need occasionally to feed some red meat to the hypernats. Or perhaps those dictators in Beijing really do want to take over the world, starting with the first island chain.

    Hyperventilation over; perhaps we should be unsurprised that a rising power will seek to rise and the rest of us really need to get used to it. In time, China will become the primary maritime power up to and beyond the first island chain and snap-up Taiwan in the process. Beyond sanctions and sabre rattling, the rest of the world will do nothing. It seems unlikely that the US would be willing to swap San Francisco for Shanghai, thus China needs only to continue making the running in order win dominance in East Asia.

    When the blast of hard power blows in our ears, only the realists are left standing (apologies to the Stratford playwright).

  2. In an interesting addenda to this piece, it should also be noted that this week (on Dec 2nd) the US dispatched two newly operational USN P-8A Poseidon aircraft to their base in Okinawa. In addition Joe Biden’s trip to the region seems to have struggled to calm the waters (or the tension in the air).

    As Chris Hughes notes in his blog entry ‘both governments are keen to demonstrate their nationalist credentials’ and this may well stand in the way of dialogue and the ability to reduce tensions as both government may have backed themselves into a corner. However, there are a few other elements of this story that need to be highlighted here. The first is that China may be being put in its ‘corner’ not just by its actions over the air space in its foreign affairs but also in response to domestic considerations. In the face of new aircraft arriving in Okinawa, the visit of Biden to Japan to ‘reaffirm’ the security arrangement between the US and Japan it may not be surprising that the government in Beijing is increasingly under pressure to demonstrate a firm action in response to perceived shifts in the nature of the alliance between Japan and the US – not least given previous criticisms of Beijing as being too weak in response to Japanese actions in the past.

    The second element is a longer term view of the past year of heightening relations. Indeed, China is on a sticky wicket – and it is getting stickier. Whether or not China undertook ‘psychological intimidation’ in the past (in terms of its increased assertiveness) is still open for contest, but there is ‘psychological intimidation’ from Japan and the US too. It is clear that in the past China stated that it viewed the ‘US pivot’ as clear containment of China. Actions by the US and Japan this week will only have affirmed that view and ensured that China has no easy way to back-down regarding this issue.

    Taking a longer term view still, in several news commentaries in the region in the past year there were arguments setting out the dangers of the pivot warning of the increased possibility of tensions resulting from the emboldening of US allies – how far does this fit with Abe’s foreign policy in 2013? And indeed how many FP options does it leave China with? Viewed from this perspective it may suggest that China has ‘pre-empted’ on this occasion, or an air zone may be the most neutral option given the new arrivals in Okinawa.

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