Originally Published 2016-09-22 12:47:38 Published on Sep 22, 2016
Two intertwined territorial contentions remain unresolved between China and Japan in the East China Sea.
Why is China escalating tensions in the East China Sea?

The presence last month of 230 Chinese fishing vessels and the recurrent intrusions by Chinese ships in the "contiguous waters" near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea have sparked new tensions in the region.

The row between China and Japan and the maritime territorial dispute in this body of water has escalated to a point where it is now one of the major combustible flashpoints in East Asia. Although Chinese naval activism, through incursions of jet fighters and coast guard vessels in the contiguous sea and airspace, has been a regular feature of the dispute for many years, such intrusions have dramatically increased of late.

Essentially, two intertwined territorial contentions remain unresolved between China and Japan in the East China Sea: maritime delimitation of this body of water, and the question of territorial sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Beijing’s interest in these seas surfaced in the early 1970s when the country became increasingly assertive about its alleged rights in the area. This newfound activism was primarily due to two factors: first, a report published by the United Nations in 1968, which suggested the likely availability of rich hydrocarbon resources in the area; second, the formation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) agreement during the 1970s, which was finally codified in 1982. The UNCLOS, which sets out the legal principles vis-à-vis the law of the sea, increased the economic value of both islands as well as the surrounding seas. This spurred China’s assertiveness over its claims to the islands in the East China Sea.

Soon after the 2012 incident, on 23 November 2013, Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force Commander Xu Liang’s vision of 'Building a Great Iron Wall in the Blue Sky' became a reality through the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. The People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of National Defense declared that aircrafts flying in the ADIZ must maintain a two-way radio communication, report their flight plan and respond in a timely manner to identification inquiries or confront "defensive emergency measures" by the Chinese armed forces. Although the Chinese government has defended its actions by stating that an ADIZ had been launched "with the aim of safeguarding state sovereignty, territorial land and air security, and maintaining flight order," the issue has been a source of increased regional tensions.Although the East China Sea conflict had been brewing for decades, the row was amplified following a showdown between the two countries in April 2012, sparked by the Japanese government’s decision to "purchase" the Diaoyu Island and its affiliated Beixiao and Nanxiao Islands. This move was aimed at preventing an even more provocative development, procurement of the islands by right-wing Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, but was viewed by China as highly unacceptable. The Chinese considered this act a violation of the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1978 whereby the leadership of both nations had arrived at a consensus on "leaving the issue of the Diaoyu Island to be resolved later."

The operation of an ADIZ is within the ambit of international law. However, China’s unilateral and provocative attempt to alter the status quo in the area is objectionable. The establishment of the ADIZ clearly demonstrates China’s strategic intention to implement jurisdictional control over the "near seas". Intrusions by Chinese naval and research vessels intensified after the launch of the ADIZ in 2013 and have contributed to dragging Tokyo-Beijing relations to the current all-time low.

In the past few years, the frequency of patrols by Chinese coast guard vessels in the vicinity of the disputed islands in the East China Sea has markedly increased. Chinese vessels have regularly intruded within 12 nautical miles of the contested territorial sea around the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands sparking security tensions in the region.

Japan argues that China is attempting to alter the status quo through intimidation and coercion. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force claimed that on 30 January 2013 a Chinese frigate fixed its firing radar on Yudachi, a Japanese destroyer. To make matters worse, in May 2015 three Chinese vessels, Haijing 2102, Haijing 2305, and Haijing 2350, were alleged to have entered the territorial waters claimed by Japan in the north-northwest of the island of Kubajima.

These recurrent provocations suggest that the pursuit of economic interests is not the sole factor driving China’s actions in the region. Hydrocarbon reserves in the East China Sea are imperative to China’s economic development, yet the distinct attributes of the dynamics behind this pragmatic country’s intense engagements in the region must also be considered.

Second, anti-Japanese sentiment has deep roots in China’s history and the East China Sea dispute, and generates a sense of nationalism in China. The quest for lost glory and the narrative of victimisation by the West and Japan has been central to the Chinese nationalist discourse, and China’s leaders seek to use this tool to bind their people within the authoritarian framework of the country.First, China’s long-term aim is to attain power parity with the United States. However, the country’s recent failure to win the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s tribunal award in the case brought against it by the Philippines in the South China Sea dispute has been a blow to Beijing’s international status. Thus the Chinese leadership, especially President Xi Jinping, is seeking to deflect the attention of the domestic and international communities before the 19th Party Congress scheduled for 2017, in order to cement his position as an effective leader.

Third, increasing naval activism in the East China Sea projects an assertive image onto the global arena and shifts consideration away from China’s domestic challenges: its slowing economy, rising unemployment, corruption, aging population, and environmental degradation, to name but a few.

While it is unlikely that China will relent from its position in this body of water, tacit agreement on adherence to confidence building measures, track two diplomacy, and joint military exercises between the two countries may be effective instruments that could bridge the fault lines in Sino-Japanese bilateral relations. Most importantly, since Japan is a key constituent of the US hub and spokes model, and the US has a definite interest in safeguarding its ties with China, it is likely that the US would strive to contain the tensions in the East China Sea in the near future.

This commentary originally appeared in Policy Forum.

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