Will the Waters of the East China Sea Start to Boil?

As the world’s attention has been focused on China’s provocative land reclamation projects in the South China Sea and their implications for potential conflict, the situation in the East China Sea has been relatively quiet so far this year, which may be a comfortable delusion.

The last major provocation was in November, 2013, when China announced the formation of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a part of the sea, including the disputed Senkaku islands, known in China as the Diaoyus.

The uninhabited islands have been a major point of contention between Japan, which claims them as undisputed national territory, and China, which also claims them. Neither side, of course, has backed away from their territorial claims. Ships belonging to the Chinese Coast Guard enter Japanese territorial waters around the islands on an average of once every two weeks.

They patrol the waters for several hours, warning any vessels they come across to leave “Chinese territorial waters,” and then they depart. These incursions may not be dramatic, but China is gradually eating away at the legitimacy of the Japanese claims, in a sense establishing a kind of Japan-China condominium over the sensitive islands.

The Chinese after all, are simply doing exactly what Tokyo is doing to demonstrate its claim to sovereignty by sending its coast guard vessels into Senkaku/Diaoyu waters to warn any intruders that they are trespassing on Japanese territory.

In 2012 the Japanese government purchased the islands from their private owner, in effect “nationalizing” them, an action that infuriated Beijing. However, neither side has actually landed citizens or erected monuments on the islands. Indeed, it was to head off such actions by right-wingers, sure to provoke Beijing even further, that the former Democratic Party of Japan government approved the purchase and took the abuse from Beijing over it.

It would be nice to think that the issue has settled down, but that may prove to be a comfortable delusion. Both China and Japan are taking actions to beef up their claims to the islands, actions that may lead to further provocations down the line.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been increasing the Japanese defense budget and is seeking to pass legislation that would allow for better military cooperation with allies and loosening geographical limits to its military operations.

Tokyo is also asserting itself more and more in the South China Sea conflict by providing patrol vessels to “frontline” nations, Vietnam and the Philippines, and by considering beginning its own aerial patrols over the disputed Spratly islands.

For its part, Beijing is building two of the world’s largest Coast Guard cutters at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai and enlarging a coast guard base in Wenzhou, with docking facilities for at least six vessels including the 10,000-tonne super cutters.

The new cutters are roughly the same size as the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers, which displace about 9,000 tonnes. In contrast, the largest ship in the US Coast Guard is about 4,500 tonnes.

Unlike other Chinese coast guard vessels, these new ones will be armed. They are likely to sport a 76 mm naval cannon and anti-aircraft guns. Compared with actual naval vessels this armament is not so formidable, but they could intimidate other vessels by their sheer size.

It is not known where these new ships will be deployed, though it stands to reason that one will be based in the South China Sea and the other in the East China Sea, probably home-ported at Wenzhou.

In addition to the Wenzhou base, the Chinese have been building a new helicopter base on the Nanji islands off the coast of China. It is not now an air base for jet fighters. Rather it reportedly has room for six helicopter pads and radars extending surveillance over the East Sea.

The Nanji base is about 300 km from the Senkaku/Diaoyus, closer than the Japan/US main base on Okinawa, although Japan is building a large radar facility on the island of Yonaguni, which is the southernmost point in Japan. China does have an airstrip at Luqiao, which is 380 km from the Senkakus.

The events unfolding in the South China Sea could have a direct impact on the northern waters around Japan in several ways. Earlier this month Washington sent the USS Fort Worth into Spratly waters to investigate what Beijing was up to. The Americans followed this with airborne patrols by P-8 surveillance plane from Kadena Air base on Okinawa.

At the moment, there is a debate in Washington whether to send planes or ships into what China claims are military alert zones around these artificial islands to demonstrate that it does not recognize them as legitimate sovereign Chinese territory.

Should Washington decide to do this, it would almost certainly provoke a strong reaction from China that could rebound to the East China Sea. Beijing, for example, could retaliate in kind by sending military aircraft directly over the Senkakus, something it has so far refrained from doing.

It could strengthen its claim to “administering” the islands by formally incorporating them into a mainland country, in much the same way that the Japanese “administer” them from Ishikagi island, which hosts the largest town in the lower Ryukyu islands.

China could hassle civilian aircraft flying through its claimed air defense zone, now traversed by about 50 different civilian airlines. So far it hasn’t done anything to disrupt civilian passage, although it recently blocked passage for an aircraft from Air Laos because it did not file the proper paperwork.

Finally, if it really wanted to provoke, it could send regular naval frigates or destroyers into Japanese waters surrounding the islands. While the world’s attention is now on the South China Sea, the more northern body of water demands attention too.

Todd Crowell is the author of The Coming War Between China and Japan by Amazon Singles.