March 9, 2017 6:00 pm JST
J. Berkshire Miller

Keeping the line in the East China Sea

US silence on sovereignty will help Tokyo resist Beijing's claims on the Senkakus

While the South China Sea and instability on the Korean Peninsula continue to dominate headlines, the situation in the East China Sea continues to deteriorate, with constant and daily intrusions by Chinese ships and aircraft into the territorial waters and airspace surrounding Japan's Senkaku Islands. They are claimed by China, which refers to them as the Diayou Islands.

According to figures from the Japan Coast Guard, there were 122 intrusions by Chinese vessels into the territorial seas surrounding the Senkaku Islands last year. In the same time frame, there were 752 instances in which Chinese vessels -- a virtual maritime militia, composed of China Coast Guard, fishing and commercial ships -- were identified within Japan's contiguous zone around the islands.

This represents the highest level of Chinese interference around the Senkakus since 2013, the year following the Japanese government's purchase of three of the islands from a private Japanese seller -- which was done to stave off attempts by Shintaro Ishihara, the then nationalist governor of Tokyo, to buy the islands. Moreover, the presence of Chinese vessels in the contiguous zone in August (147 incidents) was the largest on record -- even surpassing the months during 2012-2013 when ties between Beijing and Tokyo were at their nadir.

These figures debunk the notion that there has been a "cooling off" period in the East China Sea as a result of a slight thaw in political relations between Tokyo and Beijing. While it is true that there has been a modest decline over the past few years in the presence of official Chinese government vessels -- coast guard and naval -- Beijing has relied on exposing gray zone vulnerabilities in the East China Sea through its intentional but ambiguous dispatches of commercial and fishing vessels in their place.

Indeed, earlier this month, China also conducted large-scale military exercises in the Miyako Strait -- a critical passageway near the Senkakus -- involving dozens of planes and naval vessels. In response to this significant exercise in Japan's exclusive economic zone, Tokyo scrambled Air Self-Defense Force jets to monitor the activities, and remains concerned about Beijing's growing presence in the area. In December, Beijing also sent the aircraft carrier Liaoning and its escort ships through the strait for the first time.

While there has been criticism from China of modest increases in Japan's defense budget ($43.6 billion this year), Beijing announced plans earlier this month to spend more than three times as much as its neighbor -- $151 billion. Although this is a modest slowdown in the growth of China's defense budget, Beijing plans a rapid expansion of its naval and coast guard capabilities -- in both quantitative and qualitative terms -- that will outpace Tokyo's determined efforts to shore up its maritime defenses.

Beijing has also been stoking nationalist sentiment on the East China Sea, pouring gasoline on anti-Japanese sentiments professed by a growing group of netizens. Couple this growing nationalism with China's incremental and increasingly diversified attempts to change the status quo around the Senkakus and the urgency of the problem becomes clear. Attempts to cool tensions -- such as an implementation of crisis avoidance and mitigation mechanisms by way of common radio frequencies, or a hotline between the two sides -- have thus far failed despite repeated pledges from leaders on both sides to adopt the tools needed to avoid an unintended clash near the islands.

Taking this into account, how should Tokyo look to mitigate China's approach toward the Senkakus in the coming years? First, the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should continue to press China on the importance of implementing crisis management mechanisms surrounding the islands. Abe should also stress this priority during meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump, and push for a more united stance on pressuring Beijing to stop dragging its feet because of reservations that such tools -- while helpful for managing risk -- might appear to be a concession to Tokyo.

Second, Japan should continue to build up its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in the East China Sea and throughout the remote Okinawa islands. A good example of this was the deployment last year of a radar station on Yonaguni Island. In order to deter Beijing from making any dramatic moves in the area, Tokyo should also look to speed up the pace of procurement and surveillance helicopters for its Maritime Self-Defense Forces, in addition to its roll out of more amphibious capabilities and surveillance drones. Japan also needs to continue to devote more resources to its coast guard -- the first responder in the waters surrounding the Senkakus -- and improve its growing synergies with the MSDF.

Double-down on U.S.

Perhaps the most important component in disarming Chinese efforts surrounding the Senkakus lies in the health of the U.S.-Japan alliance. The Abe administration should continue to seek reassurance from Washington, and telegraph this commitment to Beijing in the clearest terms. In February, Abe conducted a summit meeting with Trump in Washington and Florida. One of the key areas of reassurance during the visit was Washington's commitment to the defense of the Senkakus. The U.S. also agreed to bolster its extended deterrence commitment to Japan through explicit and public references to the use of its nuclear capabilities as an option in the defense on Japan. While this was not a policy change -- Washington has long assured Tokyo privately of its place within the nuclear umbrella -- it was the first public statement in decades of explicit support via nuclear capabilities.

In a joint statement released during Abe's trip, both sides reaffirmed that the U.S. recognizes that the Senkaku Islands are under the administration of Japan, and as a result they continue to be covered under Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Clearly signaling to Beijing, Abe and Trump further agreed to "oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan's administration of these islands." They added: "The United States and Japan will deepen cooperation to safeguard the peace and stability of the East China Sea," and stressed that "The United States and Japan oppose any attempt to assert maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force."

Of course, the Article 5 commitment is not a policy change. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama consistently used similarly supportive language at all levels of the bureaucracy. Obama also outlined this commitment explicitly during a trip to Japan in 2014. But there had earlier been important differences between the approach of the Obama administration and that of Trump.

There is a final important point. While Obama always recognized Japan's administrative control of the islands, he also took great pains to detail Washington's "sovereignty caveat" -- stressing its neutrality on the matter of sovereignty. This was done to provide a carrot for Beijing, and to present a more risk-averse U.S. approach in the East China Sea. Obama was also understandably concerned about the game-changing precedent that an admission of Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus would have with regard to Washington's positions on other territorial disputes, including the status of the South Korean-administered islets known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan.

This approach appears to have been altered by the lack of an explicit reference to U.S. neutrality on sovereignty in the new U.S.-Japan joint statement. This is a less obvious and less aggressive policy shift by Washington, but it also serves to reassure Tokyo and amounts to a further signal to Beijing of U.S. support. Through enhanced alliance coordination -- facilitated by revised bilateral defense guidelines from 2015 -- and stronger diplomatic unity, the U.S. and Japan can work together to demonstrate the costs to Beijing associated with its incremental and illegal attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea.

Jonathan Berkshire Miller is a senior fellow specializing in East Asia at the EastWest Institute, an organization focused on conflict resolution, in New York.

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