The cat-and-mouse game being played between the Chinese and Japanese naval and aerial forces in the East China Sea is becoming less and less a game, and changing the dynamics of relations across the region.
Tensions have been growing in the past few weeks with both countries exchanging accusations over the misconduct of the other nation’s military jets above the disputed waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
China summoned Japan’s defense attaché in protest over two Japanese F-15 planes which flew close to a Chinese Tu-154 aircraft, “seriously affecting China’s flight safety.” Tokyo denied Beijing’s claims.
These allegations follow a similar incident that occurred on May 24, when Japan complained about a Chinese aircraft flying within a few dozen meters of its warplanes.
This news should be read in tandem with the news of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force announcing its plans to equip its facilities in the southwestern island of Kyushu with the country’s most advanced Type 12 surface-to-ship missiles by 2016. Japan has already sent a batch of Type 88 anti-ship missiles to its Miyako Island facility on June 6. Miyako is part of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture, and the closest point to the disputed islands.
The expansion of China’s military presence in the East China Sea has clearly come into conflict with Japan’s reinvigorated desire to establish its own military presence. Yet Japan is not the only nation in this predicament. Recent tensions between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea have also received a great deal of international attention. The naval clashes and destructive protests that followed have led many world leaders to voice their concern for the region.
The US has reiterated its support for regional stability. Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue Asian Defense Forum, Chuck Hagel, the US Defense secretary, lamented China’s use of coercive and intimidating tactics to assert its territorial claims in the Paracel islands and Scarborough Shoal, pressing that America “will not look the other way.”
Shinzo Abe also made clear that he would assist his partners in Southeast Asia against Chinese encroachment, maintaining that “Japan will offer its utmost support for the efforts of the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as they work to ensure the security of the seas and the skies, and thoroughly maintain freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight.”
Placed under the spotlight, China made a rather unexpected move, submitting its claim against Hanoi to the UN Secretary General. China’s Foreign Ministry sent a comprehensive outline of China’s claims to the Paracel Islands to all members of the UN General Assembly.
As an analysis in The Diplomat puts forth, China’s strategy makes sense because its claims to the Paracel Islands are, in fact, quite strong. By reaching out to the UN, China is not only admitting the existence of a dispute, something it had always refrained from doing based on what it deemed the indisputability of its sovereignty claims, it is also delegating authority to international law.
China is taking a big risk, because what may prove to work with Vietnam might not work in its other territorial disputes, but now that it has taken the path of international law, there is no going back. The changing geopolitics in the Asian seas, and the renewed diplomatic pressures from the US and elsewhere, are indeed influencing the strategic considerations being made by China.
Not by chance, then, have China and UNESCO been warming up to each other. Historical claims against Japan’s actions during WWII frequently spark tensions between Japan and its neighbors. Last week, China revealed UNESCO’s acceptance of its application to include the documentation of the Nanjing Massacre and the issue of the “comfort women” into a program that preserves material relating to world heritage.
Weeks before the submission of the application, Japan lodged a protest against China saying that the inclusion of these issues into the “Memory of the World” register was a politically motivated move.
Tensions between Japan and South Korea regarding the comfort women issue have also been mounting in recent days. Not surprisingly, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Seoul is considering making a similar application to the UN agency. The approval from UNESCO promises to further strain Sino-Japanese relations by spurring nationalist sentiments on all sides of the East Sea/Sea of Japan.
Assets at Risk
We can observe three distinct trends. First, there is growing international attention to the South China Sea. The dispute between China and Vietnam has taken a toll on the Vietnamese economy. As The Economist reports, Vietnam’s manufacturing sector depends heavily on imported Chinese raw materials. We can expect the Vietnamese manufacturing sector to keep on shrinking as it has for the past month.
Second, rapport is growing between China and South Korea regarding their historical claims against Japan. China has grown increasingly close to South Korea in recent years, which is argued by some to be a move to further dissociate South Korea from Japan, both key US allies. We can expect Sino-Korean trade to grow.
Finally, the economic dimension of Sino-Japanese relations has often been a stabilizing element over the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, but mounting tensions could start to put that in jeopardy.