It may be time to pay more attention to Beijing’s moves against Japan in the East China Sea.
Experts say that with China’s Communist Party Congress now concluded and perhaps after President Trump’s trip to Asia in early November, Beijing may escalate the moves it’s made near disputed territories in the strategic sea.
Japanese analysts fear that China might send maritime militia vessels backed by the Chinese Coast Guard in a show of force directed at the disputed Senkaku Islands. This could include a landing on one of the eight uninhabited islands.
“That’s a very legitimate concern,” said Ryan Martinson, a researcher at the U.S. Navy War College’s Maritime Studies Institute, in a reference to Japanese fears.
“Chinese leaders and strategists are almost certainly waiting for the right opportunity—such as a perceived downgrading of the U.S.-Japan alliance—to seize control of the disputed features,” said Martinson, who closely studies China’s moves in both the East and South China Seas.
At the top-level Chinese Communist Party Congress last week, President Xi Jinping stated that China’s construction on artificial islands and reefs in disputed parts of the South China Sea “has seen steady progress.”
But he also stated said that “we will not allow anyone, any organization, or any political party…to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.”
Here Xi was obviously warning Taiwan to give up any ideas about independence from China. But his statement would also apply to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands located in the East China Sea separating China and southern Japan.
In China, the Senkakus are known as the Diaoyu Islands.
Western media have understandably focused recently on China’s artificial island-building in the South China Sea as well as on countermoves by U.S. Navy ships, which are showing the flag there in support of the freedom of navigation.
But China’s by now almost routine deployment of ships, coast guard vessels, and maritime militia vessels into disputed waters in the East China Sea deserve equal attention.
The eight Senkaku Islands claimed by both Japan and China are so small that they can best be described as islets rather than islands. Three of the islands are often described simply as rocks.
So why do they matter?
For starters, the islands are located near shipping lanes in the Pacific Ocean. They’re surrounded by rich fishing grounds. And they lie near sizable oil and gas reserves.
According to the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a dispute between China and Japan over oil and gas fields in the East China Sea remains “a persistent source of friction in their relationship” and “contributes to broader maritime tensions between the two sides.”
A CSIS website, the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), has been tracking the installation of Chinese oil and natural gas drilling rigs in the international waters of the East China Sea for several years.
China and Japan agreed in mid-2008 to jointly develop four oil and gas fields and to give Japanese companies preferential treatment. But the agreement was never implemented.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry reported in June of last year that China had installed a “military” radar system and surveillance cameras on one of its gas drilling platforms located close to disputed waters.
The stakes are high on an international level as well.
China and Japan oversee the largest economies in Asia. An armed conflict between the two could damage the world economy.
It might also draw in the United States, which has a security alliance with Japan that would oblige the U.S. to come to Japan’s support in case of such a conflict. In 2014 President Barack Obama stated that a conflict over the Senkakus would fall within U.S. obligations to defend Japan.
Early this year, President Trump’s Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty and to the defense of territories under Japanese administrative control.
Japan itself has not been standing still. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won a victory in Japan’s parliamentary election on Sunday (Oct. 22) that could allow him to revise his country’s pacifist constitution.
Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, the United States introduced the constitution, which included a clause committing Japan to the renunciation of war.
Abe had argued during his election campaign that with North Korea firing test missiles over Japan and other threats confronting the country, he needed to modify that clause.
He suggested that this could be done by simply adding a supplementary clause to the constitution.
But that will require the approval of a majority of Japanese voters, and public opinion is split on the issue.
Polls show high support for the military in Japan, but the idea of revising the constitution is still a sensitive issue for significant numbers of Japanese.
Japan has increased its defense budget five times since Prime Minister Abe came to power in 2012. Officials argued that the increases were needed partly to counter North Korea’s missile threat and China’s build-up of naval forces.
The Obama and Trump administrations had both urged Japan to take on more of the military burden in its alliance with the United States.
Meanwhile, partly in reaction to a more assertive Chinese foreign policy introduced by President Xi, Abe has increased Japanese aid and investments to nations facing pressures from China in the South China Sea. Abe has also bolstered Japan’s ties with India.
According to a report by energy law specialist Muhammad Waqas published in the Oil & Gas Financial Journal, China raised no objections to Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands until 1969, when the issue of oil and natural gas reserves arose.
Estimates began showing huge hydrocarbon deposits underneath the East China Sea.
In the early 1970s both China and Taiwan began pressing their claims to the islands.
In the spring of 2012, Tokyo’s hawkish Mayor Shintaro Ishihara triggered alarm in China when he said that he would spend public money to buy the Senkakus from their private Japanese owner.
According to a BBC report, the Japanese government intervened to buy three islets from the owner in a move to block Ishihara’s “more provocative plan.”
But all of this provoked widespread protests in China, where anti-Japanese feelings are easily aroused.
William Choong wrote three years ago in a book titled “The Ties that Divide,” that nationalistic feelings in Beijing and Tokyo have given symbolic significance to the dispute over the Senkakus.
“China regards the ‘return’ of the Diaoyu Islands as integral to the country’s re-emergence,” Choong said.
“For Japan, retaining the islands confirms that it is still a major power not to be trifled with,” Choong said.
Given Japan’s World War II occupation of parts of China and the denial by some in Japan of the infamous Nanjing Massacre and other Japanese wartime actions, anti-Japanese feelings run particularly high in China.
But on both sides nationalistic passions put pressure on the leaders of China and Japan to appear tough when standing up for their countries.
Avoiding full-scale conflict
Grant Newsham, a retired U.S. Marine colonel with a long history of working with Japan’s Self- Defense Forces (JSDF), wrote recently that “Chinese ships are in more places, more often, and in greater numbers than the Japanese Coast Guard can handle.”
In a commentary published on Oct. 13 in the Asia Times, Newsham added that China’s air force also routinely intrudes into Japan’s airspace, while harried Japanese jets dutifully scramble to intercept.”
But China’s actions appear to be carefully calibrated to avoid triggering a full-scale armed conflict.
Some analysts refer to the Chinese approach as “salami slicing.”
J. Michael Cole, a journalist based in Taiwan and writing in The National Interest last year, called it a strategy of “permanent conflict.”
But China’s actions occasionally make headlines. One example: In August of last year, China drew considerable attention when it sent some 230 fishing boats accompanied by seven China Coast Guard ships into the 12-nautical mile territorial sea of the Senkaku Islands.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.