Category: East China Sea

China and Escalation over the Senkaku Islands

In a recent article for a new journal, Global Summitry, I examine China’s behavior in the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands.

Before 2010, China adopted a low-key approach to the dispute. After 2010, however, China chose to escalate the dispute, first in response to Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing vessel in September 2010 and then in response to the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the islands in September 2012.

I make three points in the article:

  1. China escalated because Japan’s actions challenged China’s relatively weak position in the dispute.
  2. By escalating, China could counter Japanese actions and strengthen its position in the dispute.
  3. Since late 2013, the dispute appears to have stabilized. China’s patrols within twelve nautical miles of the islands have strengthened China’s position in the dispute, while Japan has refrained from developing the islands.

Read the article here.

China, Japan, and the U.S.—Will Cooler Heads Prevail?

I joined the conversation over the Asia Society’s ChinaFile on tensions between the China, the United States and Japan.

Specifically, I addressed a question “will China attempt to take the Senkakus by force?”

Let me pick up on Isaac’s first question, “will China attempt to take the Senkakus by force?”

Iain Johnston and I recently analyzed data on the frequency of Chinese Coast Guard patrols within the twelve nautical mile territorial waters of the islands. Since September 2012, China has used these patrols to challenge Japan’s sovereignty and administration of these disputed rocks.

For the past six months, however, China has reduced significantly the frequency of patrols it conducts within the island’s territorial waters. Before October 2013, it conducted a patrol roughly once per week, on average. Since then, it has conducted a patrol once every two weeks. In sum, the rate of patrols has dropped by half—and is statistically significant.

The reduced frequency of these patrols is noteworthy for several reasons. First, as Iain and I suggested, China may be signaling limits on its willingness to escalate, at least for now. Second, by reducing the number of patrols, China is also reducing the opportunities for an accident or incident to occur between Chinese and Japanese ships. Such an event, especially if it involved fatalities, could spark a much more intense crisis and greater incentives to use force on both sides.

Turning to Isaac’s question, the reduction in the frequency of these patrols is inconsistent with an escalation of pressure that might culminate in a decision by China to use force. Instead, China appears to have adopted a long-term view of dispute that does not involve taking them by force. Last summer, for example, a meeting of prominent Chinese government analysts concluded that China should “avoid an incident that sparks a war” over the islands. They also assessed that the dispute would persist for a long time to come and that it was therefore urgent to reduce the possibility and risk of a collision at sea.

Finally, a broader point. If China seized islands by force, they would be nearly impossible to defend from a counter-attack, as Gen. John Wissler noted; Moreover, a counter-attack to retake the islands would risk a much wider war, which China as well as the United States and Japan want to avoid.China’s leaders have quite likely anticipated such a scenario, which explains the emphasis on a long-term effort to challenge Japan’s control of the islands and surrounding waters with its coast guard and not its naval forces.

Xi Jinping and China’s Maritime Disputes

At the end of July, the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling Politburo held a special study session on the nation’s growing maritime power, which has helped cause controversy with several neighboring states. Official media reports about the meeting emphasized a speech by President Xi Jinping that repeated the main policy themes from the recent 18th Party Congress, calling for China to become a major maritime power by developing its maritime resources and protecting the ocean environment.

But Xi’s most interesting remarks have received scant attention. Under China’s system of collective leadership, speeches at Politburo meetings usually reflect the consensus of the participants – in this case, China’s top 25 leaders. Near the end of his address at the most recent study session, Xi discussed China’s ongoing maritime disputes and predictably repeated many now common talking points, such as “never giving up its legitimate rights and interests,” especially the nation’s core interests. Nevertheless, two other phrases he used may illuminate how Beijing may handle these disputes and therefore deserve greater attention. Xi’s remarks suggest that Beijing may be reconsidering the merits of its most assertive actions in the East and South China Seas—ones that have caused grave diplomatic problems with Japan and many Southeast Asian countries.

First, Xi repeated the late Deng Xiaoping’s 12-character guideline for dealing with territorial disputes over offshore islands such as the Spratlys and Senkaku/Diaoyu. In a series of statements between 1979 and 1984, Deng had outlined his more moderate approach, later summarized as “sovereignty remains ours; shelve disputes; pursue joint development.” In recent years, Chinese scholars and analysts have debated the merits of that approach, sometimes criticized for failing to prevent what have been perceived infringements of Chinese sovereignty. For example, just last year a prominent analyst at the China Contemporary Institutes of International Relations, Chen Xiangyang, called for a more assertive policy. In particular, he suggested that Deng’s guideline be replaced with a tougher approach: “sovereignty of course is ours; maintain the dispute stage; seize the initiative to pursue development; strengthen crisis management and control” (zhuquan dangran zaiwo, jieduanxing baochi zhengyi, zhuajin zizhu kaifa, qianghua weiji guangkong).

However, by repeating Deng’s 12-character guideline, Xi endorsed and affirmed Deng’s earlier position on behalf of the entire Politburo (including two of the People’s Liberation Army’s top generals, Fan Changlong and Xu Qiliang). By stating what the party line should be, Xi indirectly addressed the internal debate about Deng’s guideline. Of course, Deng did not offer a plan for resolving the underlying sovereignty disputes, but the Politburo’s affirmation of Deng’s approach indicates that Beijing will be patient, and pursue temporary measures to reduce tensions. It also undermines a growing belief overseas that China is becoming increasingly impatient at sea.

A few days later, Foreign Minister Wang Yi illustrated what Xi’s remarks could mean in reality. During a tour of Southeast Asia, Wang indicated that a final resolution could only be achieved through bilateral talks and would “take time,” while progress on a much-needed Code of Conduct for minimizing maritime problems could only be achieved without outside interference (read: the Philippine decision to seek international arbitration rather than direct diplomatic talks). Thus, Wang emphasized “actively” exploring joint development, though he failed to offer any specific details about how to do so.

Second, Xi said in his speech that China must “plan as a whole the two overall situations of maintaining stability and safeguarding rights” (yao tongchou weiwen  he weiyuan liangge daju), the first time such a phrase has been used by a top leader. This seemed to give equal importance to maintaining regional stability (weiwen) and safeguarding China’s “maritime rights and interests” (weiquan).

In past speeches by China’s top leaders, a reference to the “overall situation” (daju) typically described a primary national interest that Beijing should not allow to be harmed or undermined by specific state policies. In the 1990s, for example, speeches on military modernization asserted that increases in defense spending must be coordinated with the overall progress of economic reform – that is, spending should not increase at the expense of broader goals. More recently, in 2006, during a major speech on Chinese diplomacy, then-President Hu Jintao referred to the equal importance of managing the domestic and international overall situations (guonei, guowai, liangge daju). As Bonnie Glaser from the Center for International and Strategic Studies observed then, Hu’s statement reflected the judgment that Beijing’s domestic policy of urging enterprises to invest abroad had backfired by harming China’s image in the world.

In his speech to the Politburo, Xi thus highlighted the contradiction between China’s enhanced efforts to defend its claimed maritime rights and its desire for regional  stability. This matters for several reasons. First, it represents a recognition that Beijing’s maritime assertiveness has harmed its other interests, especially the role of other states in regional security affairs. Since 2010, for example, the United States has clarified its policy in the South China Sea, while deepening its alliance with Japan and underscoring its commitment to defend the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (which Japan administers) under Article V of their mutual defense treaty. Tokyo meanwhile has pursued greater maritime and security cooperation with Hanoi and Manila, among others, including by providing patrol boats.

Second, the stress on the need to balance these competing interests suggests limits to how either will be pursued going forward. On the one hand, China will not rule out reacting to perceived challenges simply to maintain regional stability. On the other hand, China’s defense of its maritime claims will also face hard constraints, lest they further worsen its position in the region. How these interests will be balanced may become apparent as a newly formed Chinese Coast Guard under a reorganized State Oceanic Administration shows how it plans to behave.

In sum, Xi’s remarks to the Politburo deserve special attention. They indicate China may not be as impatient about resolving the South China Sea disputes as some analysts have suggested. And they indicate China’s approach to these disputes may be more nuanced than expected by those who have labeled him as little more than a nationalist hardliner.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat as “Xi Jinping’s Overlooked Revelation on China’s Maritime Disputes.”]

Sinica podcast

During a recent trip to Beijing, I met up with Kaiser Kuo, one of the hosts of the outstanding Sinica podcast.

We discussed recent developments in China’s maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas, as well as the state of the Chinese navy.

You can listen to the podcast here.  I had so much fun there’s a bit of popping on the line after the first 5 minutes….

Even if you’re not interested in maritime affairs, the Sinica podcast is a “must listen” show for anyone interested in contemporary China.

Redefining the Status Quo

The most striking feature of China’s behavior in its maritime disputes this year has been efforts to redefine the status quo.  In its disputes with the Philippines and Japan, China has used the presence of its civilian maritime law enforcement agencies to create new facts on the water to strengthen China’s sovereignty claims.

Before April 2012, neither China nor the Philippines maintained a permanent presence at Scarborough Shoal.  Fishermen from the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and China operated in and around the large reef.  At times in the past, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Philippine navy had arrested Chinese fishermen who were inside the shoal.  Since then, Chinese patrols have sailed by the shoal, but no effort has been undertaken to exercise effective control over the shoal or its surrounding waters.

The situation changed following the standoff over sovereignty of Scarborough Shoal.  The standoff began in April 2012 when the Philippine navy prepared to arrest Chinese fishermen who were operating in the shoal’s lagoon.  After receiving a distress call, two China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessels arrived on the scene, blocking the entrance to the lagoon and preventing the arrest of the Chinese fishermen.  After the fishing boats left the shoal, however, government ships from both sides remained to defend claims to sovereignty over the shoal.  By the end of May, China had deployed as many as seven CMS and Bureau of Fisheries Administration ships.

In early June, the Philippines announced that an agreement had been reached with China for a mutual withdrawal of ships.  Although China never publicly confirmed the existence of such an agreement, ships from both sides left in mid June as a typhoon approached the area.  Later, however, Chinese ships returned and appear have maintained a permanent presence in the waters around the shoal since then.  In mid July 2012, for example, an intrepid news crew from Al Jazeera videotaped an attempt to visit the shoal, only to be turned away by a combination of CMS and fisheries administration vessels.  China has also roped off the sole entrance to the lagoon inside the shoal to control access to it.

Before the standoff, China had no permanent presence at Scarborough Shoal.  Three months later, China had effective control of the shoal and the surrounding waters, thereby altering the status quo in this dispute in its favor.  As an editorial in the Global Times noted, China has “directly consolidated control” of the shoal.

A similar dynamic is underway in the East China Sea over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands.  Before the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the islets from a private citizen in September 2012, Chinese government ships had generally avoided entering the 12 nautical mile limit of Japan’s territorial waters around the islands.  As I wrote several years ago, China and Japan appeared to have a tacit agreement from the mid-2000s to limit the presence of ships and citizens near the islands in an effort to manage the potential for escalation.

In September 2010, the detention of a Chinese fishing captain whose boat had broached the 12 nautical mile limit and then rammed a Japanese Coast Guard ship sparked a crisis in China-Japan relations.  Part of China’s response included increasing the number of patrols by marine surveillance and fisheries vessels near the islands.  Most of the time, these boats remained beyond Japan’s 12 nautical mile territorial waters around the Senkakus or crossed this line only briefly.  China in practical terms continued to accept Japanese de facto control of the islands and their associated territorial waters (over which a state enjoys sovereignty rights under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea).

After the purchase of the islands last month, however, China has abandoned this approach. China firstissued baselines to claim its own territorial waters around the islands and then began to conduct almost daily patrols within its newly-claimed waters – directly challenging the Japanese control that it had largely accepted before.  The purpose of the patrols is two-fold: to demonstrate that the purchase of the islands will not affect China’s sovereignty claims and to challenge Japan’s position that there is no dispute over the sovereignty of the islands.

Although China does not control the waters around the Senkakus (unlike the situation at Scarborough), it no longer accepts de facto Japanese control.  On October 31, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesmanasserted that a new status quo had been created.  After describing China’s new patrols as “routine,” Hong Lai stated that “the Japanese side should face squarely the reality that a fundamental change has already occurred in the Diaoyu Islands.”

In both cases, China responded to challenges to its claims with an enhanced physical presence to bolster China’s position and deter any further challenges.  These responses suggest an even greater willingness to pursue unilateral actions to advance its claims.  In neither case is a return to the status quo ante likely.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat.]

The Dangerous Math of Chinese Island Disputes

Today, I published a piece in the Asian Wall Street Journal on the current standoff between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands.

Reviewing China’s behavior in its past territorial disputes, I argue that the danger of escalation is much greater than is commonly believed.

The piece can be viewed here.  You can also email me for an off-print.

PS — The origin title was “Danger in the East China Sea.”

Doubling Down in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands?

High-ranking diplomats from China and Japan met in Shanghai recently to hold consultations over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands. Zhang Zhijun, vice minister of foreign affairs, met with his counterpart, Chikao Kawai. Details of the talks were not disclosed, but the continuation of consultations that started in September is important if the two sides seek to maintain stability in the East China Sea.

Just before the talks, however, both sides hardened their stances. A diplomatic solution to the current standoff appears to be fading fast.

On October 19, China held a widely-publicized one-day maritime exercise involving naval and government vessels. Dubbed “East Sea Coordination–2012,” the exercise simulated how China would respond to a collision between its government ships and “foreign law enforcement vessels” in which Chinese boats were damaged and personnel injured. Vessels participating in the exercise came from the regional bureaus of the China Marine Surveillance force and the Bureau of Fisheries Administration. In the exercises, naval ships provided protection and medical aid while government ships practiced search and rescue operations. Photos and videos of the exercises, which occurred off the coast of Zhoushan Island in Zhejiang Province, circulated widely through the Chinese media.

In the context of the Senkakus standoff, the purpose of the exercise was two-fold. First, the exercise signaled to Japan China’s resolve to defend its “territorial sovereignty and maritime interests” with its diverse maritime assets. Second, the scenario of a hypothetical collision of government vessels invoked the current situation around the disputed islands. The message is clear: any incident involving a Chinese government ship could result in the use of naval forces and thus the escalation of the dispute.

At the same time, Japan has been seeking to build international support. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) posted on its website a pamphlet underscoring two aspects of Japan’s position. First, the pamphlet countered China’s claims that the 1943 Cairo and 1945 Potsdam declarations dictated the disposition of Japanese territory after World War II. It also underscored that the islands were incorporated into Okinawa in January 1895, before the Treaty of Shimonoseki, and thus not part of Taiwan and territories that Japan was required to relinquish after the war.

Second, the MOFA pamphlet challenged the notion that top Chinese and Japanese leaders had discussed the presence of a dispute over the Senkakus in the 1970s. According to the pamphlet, “in the course of negotiations with China, Japan never recognized the existence of an issue to be solved on the territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands.” The pamphlet then provides excerpts from conversations between Zhou and Tanaka in 1972 and Deng and Fukuda in 1978. Interestingly, the excerpts are shorter than those found in Chinese sources (here and here). For example, the Japanese account of the Zhou-Tanaka talks omits Tanaka’s response to Zhou that the question of the Senkakus could be discussed after the normalization of relations. As a result, Japan appears to be eliminating the option of using some acknowledgment of these past discussions as the basis of a diplomatic solution to the current standoff.

In sum, the two sides are talking. Nevertheless, they are also hardening their positions. As a result, a diplomatic breakthrough may be increasingly difficult to achieve in the short-term. The dispute is poised to become a long-term thorn in the side of China-Japan relations.

[This original appeared in The Diplomat.]

Easing China-Japan Island Tensions

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced that Luo Zhaohui, Director-General of the Department of Asian Affairs, had made an unpublicized visit to Japan.  The purpose of his trip was to prepare for the next round of talks over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands at the vice ministerial level, similar to those heldin late September.

Overall, this is good news – talking is better than unilateral actions that might spiral out of control.  As I andothers have suggested recently, China and Japan in these talks could revisit past discussions of the islands in the 1970s.  A formula might be crafted that would allow both sides to disengage from their irreconcilable positions.  China could claim that a “common understanding” with Japan had been re-affirmed.  Japan could maintain that the islands had been discussed in the past even though it believes that there is no dispute.  Quietly, China and Japan could also agree to refrain from unilateral actions in the waters around the islands.

What can else can Japan and China discuss that might help to enhance stability in the East China Sea?  Several options exist, even though some are less realistic than others.  Nevertheless, all options should be explored.

First, and more practically, Tokyo and Beijing could agree to start talks on how to share the resources in the waters around the islands, starting with fisheries.  Such an agreement would be the first step toward reducing the salience of sovereignty over the islands.  Moreover, it could be premised on an understanding that it would not affect each side’s claims to sovereignty.  Nevertheless, a resource-sharing agreement would allow for a modicum of trust to be built.  And it would remove one potential flashpoint that could create a real crisis – a clash involving fishermen.

Furthermore, China and Japan have already demonstrated their capacity to reach this kind of a functional agreement.  They singed a bilateral fishing accord in 1997 (though it excluded the waters near the Senkakus), which can be updated and expanded.  In June 2008, the two sides concluded a “principled consensus” on natural gas exploration in the East China Sea.  The agreement noted explicitly they would conduct joint activities “without prejudicing their respective legal positions.”  In other words, economic cooperation would not weaken each other’s sovereignty or maritime boundary claims.

Second, Beijing and Tokyo could accelerate talks on establishing a high-level maritime consultative mechanism.  The first round of such talks was held in May 2012 and included representatives from the relevant agencies on both sides – foreign affairs, defense, and maritime law enforcement.  These talks could be integrated with an effort between the two militaries to enhance maritime communications, which so far has held two meetings at the working group level in 2008 and 2010.  They could also create hotlines and other risk management procedures between the Chinese and Japanese navies as well as relevant government agencies, such as the China Marine Surveillance force and the Japanese Coast Guard.

Finally, China and Japan could explore submitting this case to the International Court of Justice.  On its face, this is least likely.  Nevertheless, it merits consideration.  Japan need not abandon its position that there is no dispute.  China could seek to demonstrate the strength of its claims.  Moreover, it would take time – years – for the court to issue its ruling, creating a “cooling off” period.  When a ruling was reached, it would provide political cover accepting the final judgment.  Alternatively, they could simply announce their intention to submit the dispute to the court at an unspecified date in the future.

I’ve avoided assessing the plausibility that any of these agreements can be reached. Success requires diplomatic skill and political will, which both sides appear to lack at this time.  Nevertheless, talking remains better than the alternative.

[This originally appeared in The Diplomat.]