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East China Sea is Japan's top security challenge

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A Chinese Coast Guard ship equipped with what appeared to be gun turrets approached the Senkaku Islands in December. (Courtesy of the Japan Coast Guard)   © Kyodo

Tensions in the South China Sea have been in the international spotlight over the past few months. In Japan, there has been significant debate over the country's potential role as a U.S. regional ally in ensuring freedom of navigation and the promotion of a rules-based order in the region. But while the South China Sea continues to be an important regional issue, the potential for increased tensions in the East China Sea remains the most important security challenge for Japan.

     Last year witnessed a small improvement in the strained relationship between Japan and China. Following an "ice-breaker" meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in November 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in Jakarta in April during another international meeting. These bilateral meetings were followed by the official resumption of the Trilateral Leaders' Summit, which also involves South Korea. During the Trilateral meeting, Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made time to meet on bilateral issues.

     These high-level encounters have broken the deadlock between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. At a practical level, the meetings have resulted in high-level commitments by Tokyo and Beijing to push forward the implementation of a crisis management mechanism in the East China Sea to avoid unintended clashes, either in the sea or the skies above. This was agreed during the Abe-Xi meeting in November 2014 and has been reinforced by several working-level meetings since that time. High-level maritime talks have resumed and both sides have re-engaged in a bilateral security dialogue.

     Despite these positive political signs, one should not conclude that the two sides are ratcheting down tensions in the East China Sea. In fact, the opposite is true. According to statistics from Japan's Coast Guard, Chinese vessels continue to make repeated incursions within Japan's territorial sea and its contiguous zone surrounding the Senkaku Islands. The islands are administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands. The frequency of Chinese maritime incursions has actually increased since the Abe/Xi icebreaker meeting in 2014. In that year 88 Chinese incursions were reported in the territorial sea surrounding the Senkaku islands. Last year, that number increased to 95.

     The problem is not related only to the number of incursions; there are also growing concerns in Tokyo about the types of ships that China is using. Last month, Japan lodged a formal protest after a Chinese Coast Guard ship, reportedly armed with four gun turrets, approached the Senkakus. This provocation was an attempt by Beijing to alter the status quo around the islands in order to force Tokyo to admit that there is a dispute.

     More worrying, however, is the fact that this vessel was likely a remodeled Chinese naval frigate rebranded as a "white-hull" Coast Guard ship. China's decision to introduce armed vessels to the region raises the stakes considerably. Tokyo has already responded by insisting that, from now on, Japan's Maritime Self Defense Forces will be dispatched to enforce sovereignty against any future incursions by naval or quasi-naval vessels.

     Other trends also cast doubt on the idea of de-escalation in the East China Sea. Beijing is rapidly enhancing its naval and Coast Guard capabilities in the region and has commissioned two "mega-ships" for its Coast Guard which each displace 10,000 tons -- making them the largest such vessels in the world. China is also moving naval and Coast Guard assets, and potentially bases, closer to the frontlines in the East China Sea.

High-level commitments

This threat is magnified by the fact that there has been little real implementation of high-level commitments on crisis management in the East China Sea. In January 2015, Japan and China held high-level maritime talks in Tokyo and reaffirmed their mutual intention to create a hotline to prevent the escalation of any potential conflict in the sea. At this meeting, they also reached a basic agreement on establishing a common radio frequency for both sides' maritime vessels and air assets in the region. A year later, neither of these commitments has been implemented due to Beijing dragging its feet on the objective of a thaw in the area.

     How should Japan meet this challenge? First, it will be critical to leverage reclaimed political capital with China to press the urgency -- through high-level channels -- of implementing the crisis management mechanisms that were agreed in November 2014. Specifically, there is an urgent need for the introduction of a maritime security hotline, as well as a common radio frequency -- both of which could mitigate the impact of any accidental incidents that may arise in the coming months, whether military or non-military.

     Second, the Abe administration should capitalize on its improving relationship with South Korea, following a landmark deal on "comfort women" last month, to apply pressure on Beijing to end behavior aimed at changing the status quo in the East China Sea. Tokyo can use its improving ties with Seoul to defang the notion of a joint China-South Korea stance against Japanese interests. While not directly linked to the East China Sea, better ties with Seoul will further isolate China and its assertive behavior in the maritime domain.

     Third, Japan should balance efforts to engage with China on crisis mitigation with simultaneous moves to shore up its capabilities -- both naval and Coast Guard -- in the East China Sea. Tokyo should ramp up plans to procure Global Hawk surveillance drones, amphibious vehicles, and Osprey transport aircraft, which it could use for deterrence around the Senkaku Islands. Japan will also need to increase significantly its investment in its Coast Guard over the coming years since it remains the first responder in the area.

     Fourth, Tokyo needs to leverage revised bilateral defense guidelines with the U.S. to address "gray zone" gaps around the Senkaku Islands that are difficult to assess. China continues to play on strategic ambiguity to exploit gaps in the potential for a coordinated U.S.-Japan response to an incident in the islands. This is most evident in China's use of commercial and Coast Guard vessels in and around Japan's territorial waters to challenge Tokyo's administration of the area. The revised guidelines and a new whole-of-government Alliance Coordination Mechanism project a more seamless approach to assessing threat scenarios, sharing information and developing a joint-response.

     It will be critical for Tokyo to maintain its focus -- and the concentration of its U.S. ally -- on reducing the likelihood of a clash with Beijing in the East China Sea. To achieve this goal, Japan will need to use all of its resources, in both the diplomatic and defense realms, over the coming months.

Jonathan Berkshire Miller is a fellow on East Asia at the U.S.-based EastWest Institute.

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