Tensions are spiking again between China and Japan as China seeks to fend off any involvement by Japan in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and China tightens the vice on Japan in the East China Sea, J. Berkshire Miller writes.
Last month, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy conducted a number of naval drills in the Sea of Japan, termed “a confrontation drill”, aimed at simulating a potential maritime conflict. Of course, Beijing caveated – with little attention to strategic planners in Tokyo and Washington – that the exercise was “not aimed at any one country”. The drills, which follow a significant uptick in tensions over the past few months in the East and South China Seas, are telling on Beijing’s strategic intentions to push back against what it sees as a coordinated and sustained effort by the US and its allies – principally Japan – to “name, shame and contain” China.
Indeed, the past year has seen a marked deterioration in Japan-China relations, especially as a result of increased tensions in the East and South China Sea. One of the big watermarks has been the decision on July 12, by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, to award the tribunal ruling to the Philippines in its dispute with China over the latter’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, largely centered on its intentional ambiguity surrounding the infamous “nine-dash line”. Beijing has predictably responded by calling the ruling a “waste of paper” and has assembled its diplomatic influence in the fractured Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in order to disrupt potential unity on whether the ruling should be respected.
But more important than what Beijing has done following the tribunal ruling is what it has not done. Despite concerns from many, China has thus far refrained from taking the next step and making a unilateral declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. The move, which would follow up China’s similar action in the East China Sea in November 2013, has thus far been avoided because it would be seen as provocative and escalatory, not just by the US and its allies, but also by other states in the region which are struggling to maintain a position that is not overly critical of Chinese actions in the waters. Despite holding back on the ADIZ and other areas – such as attempts to further militarise the Scarborough Shoal – China maintains these cards and self-admittedly reserves the right to turn the screws when it feels the timing is right.
This geostrategic context has further complicated the opaque Japan-China security relationship. Tokyo has significant commercial and security interests in the South China Sea and realises that the maritime capability gap between China and ASEAN states is growing in leaps and bounds. Moreover, Japan feels that taking a more assertive diplomatic posture on the South China Sea would support the position of the Abe administration to link China’s assertiveness in the maritime domain (including its behaviour in its dispute with Japan in the East China Sea) to a greater normative principle that upholds international law rather than coercive change of the status quo.
Tokyo has responded forcefully to the Hague decision and has repeatedly indicated that China, along with other parties to the dispute, needs to recognise that the ruling is legally binding and final. This has raised ire in China and drawn a series of public rebukes against any involvement by Japan in the South China Sea. Even more concerning to China are Tokyo’s efforts to boost the maritime capabilities of other states in Southeast Asia – especially Vietnam and the Philippines – through the provision of retrofitted patrol vessels. But what Beijing is most alarmed by is the idea of Japan potentially participating with its US ally, and also Australia, in freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. This continues to be seen as a “redline” for China, which has warned Japan not to send its Self-Defence Forces to the waterways for such operations.
Even more concerning to China are Tokyo’s efforts to boost the maritime capabilities of other states in Southeast Asia – especially Vietnam and the Philippines – through the provision of retrofitted patrol vessels. But what Beijing is most alarmed by is the idea of Japan potentially participating with its US ally, and also Australia, in freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. This continues to be seen as a “redline” for China, which has warned Japan not to send its Self-Defence Forces to the waterways for such operations.
This divergence of interests in the South China Sea has been a large factor in China’s tactics to tighten the vice on Japan in the East China Sea, specifically with regard to their territorial row over the Senkaku Islands. While there have been some periods of shaky truce in the area, tensions are spiking again. The two sides continue to spar over resource issues in the East China Sea as Beijing continues to inch closer to Japan’s exclusive economic zone for natural gas exploration. Meanwhile, the Abe government has rebuked China’s uptick in maritime and airspace intrusions surrounding the Senkaku Islands. There have also been a number of troubling incidents over the past few months involving Chinese vessels entering Japan’s contiguous zone and territorial waters.
Finally, compounding this mistrust is the lack of concrete movement, despite promises by both foreign ministers last month, to implement the crisis avoidance mechanisms currently being discussed by both sides. All of this smacks of a retaliatory move by Beijing as it looks to disarm Japan’s moves in the South China Sea and push back with a tougher posture in the East China Sea.