Is China escalating in the East China Sea, or tipping its hand?
Early last Thursday morning, a Chinese Jiangkai I frigate entered waters near the disputed Japanese Senkaku islands, called the Diaoyu by China. The move sparked an immediate response from the Japanese government, which summoned the Chinese ambassador at 2 am to lodge a protest. When the islands were nationalized by Japan in 2012, incursions by Chinese ships and aircraft increased dramatically, from practically zero to sometimes several per day. This most recent incursion was unique because it was the first time China has used a naval vessel instead of a Coast Guard or other state ship to venture near the islands. One senior Japanese defense official said the warship’s presence meant “the level of crisis has gone up one notch.” However, both the frigate’s route and Japan’s response may actually have confirmed that Japan really has the upper hand in the Senkaku dispute.
The Chinese frigate did not enter Japan’s claimed territorial waters around the islands, which extend 12 nautical miles from shore, but instead sailed into what is called the Contiguous Zone, which extends for 24 nm. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), states have limited enforcement rights within the Contiguous Zone, mostly related to ensuring foreign vessels comply with customs and environmental laws prior to entering their sovereign territorial waters. For Japan, there was thus no basis under UNCLOS to protest the Chinese ship, as there are no restrictions on passage through the Contiguous Zone.
But because China does not recognize Japan’s claim over the Senkakus, the presence of a warship for the first time is uniquely sensitive. In a statement, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, “the fact that [China] sent a naval ship to the contiguous waters of our Senkaku Islands for the first time is an act that unilaterally increases tension.” China responded to the Japanese complaint saying, “The Diaoyu Islands…are Chinese territory. For China’s military vessels to pass through waters under the country’s own jurisdiction is reasonable and legitimate…”
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Japan is rightly concerned by any new activity in the East China Sea. Chinese ships and aircraft enter both the Contiguous Zone and the territorial waters around the Senakakus hundreds of times each year. China has also sent massive new Coast Guard cutters bigger than U.S. Navy destroyers to the region. In response, Japan created a new dedicated Coast Guard unit of 12 cutters tasked exclusively with patrolling the waters around the Senkakus, and established a new long-range radar facility on the island of Yonaguni that can track Chinese ships and aircraft approaching the disputed islands.
Japan has also substantially increased its involvement in Southeast Asian affairs, and the South China Sea disputes especially. Both the Japanese prime minister and defense minister have repeatedly voiced concern over China’s island reclamation and construction activities in the South China Sea. Last year, Japan was reportedly considering patrolling the sea jointly with the United States, though this has not yet materialized.
Through the end of this week, Japan will participate in an advanced combined naval exercise called Malabar in the Philippine Sea. Malabar was previously just a bilateral exercise between the United States and India; Japan became a permanent participant in 2015, then stayed on to conduct two weeks of exercises with the United States in the South China Sea. Japan has also made significant security overtures to the Philippines, including numerous port visits to Subic Bay by Japanese warships and a new security cooperation agreement that includes the transfer of Japanese planes and other military equipment.
China’s only response has been verbal condemnations and statements in the vein that Japan had “maliciously created tensions” and was “not a party concerned to the South China Sea issue.” At the recent Shangri La Dialogues, the Chinese delegate reportedly warned Japan’s vice defense minister “to respect China’s interests and concerns, and not to intervene in or hype up regional tensions.” The PLAN frigate’s incursion may have been a signal to Japan not to take the status quo in the East China Sea for granted if it persists in involving itself in the South China Sea. However, this single Chinese warship in the Senkakus, though certainly unwelcome, appears an anemic response in contrast to Japan’s activity in the South China Sea.
Further, if the Jiangkai I-class vessel was meant to probe Japan’s resolve and test the U.S. defense commitment to the islands, it was probably counterproductive. So far Japan’s response has been swift, proportional, and appropriate, including an announcement that it was considering supplementing its Coast Guard patrols of the Senkakus with warships from the Maritime Self Defense Force (SDF) under a new provision to allow the SDF to perform policing duties in extreme situations. For its part, the U.S. State Department reiterated pledges by both President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter that the Senkakus fall under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, obligating the United States to defend Japanese territory.
Finally, the Japanese response aside, the Chinese warship’s route may have inadvertently weakened China’s political claim to the islands. It’s tempting to think of China’s move as a type of Freedom of Navigation operation (FONOP), much like the operations the United States has executed in the South China Sea since last fall by sailing warships within 12 nm of China’s reclaimed features. Those operations were intended to challenge Chinese claims to territorial waters based off of those artificial islands. However, prominent UNCLOS experts have criticized those FONOPS for sending mixed signals. Because they were conducted consistent with what UNCLOS calls “innocent passage,” a right extended to foreign ships to transit within another country’s territorial waters, the operations may have implied U.S. recognition of the legitimacy of Chinese claims to those waters. In fact, FONOPs are not intended to contest sovereign territorial claims at all, only excessive maritime claims based off of that territory, which assumes the question of sovereignty is settled.
If China believed its warships were “passing through waters under the country’s own jurisdiction,” they would not have so scrupulously avoided Japan’s claimed territorial waters around the Senkakus. By remaining in the Contiguous Zone, China showed either a de facto recognition of Japan’s claims or that it was unwilling to risk a militarized response from Japan and its ally the United States. In return, the Chinese have earned increased vigilance by Japan and confirmation of the U.S. security guarantee. While it may look like China was probing the Senkakus to escalate its dispute with Japan in the East China Sea, it actually revealed how weak its position in the dispute really is.
Steven Stashwick is a writer and analyst based in New York City. He spent ten years on active duty as a U.S. naval officer with multiple deployments to the Western Pacific. He writes about maritime and security affairs in East Asia and serves in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter.