The contested Senkaku Islands are sparking conflict again between two nations that claim the uninhabited land masses.
Four China Coast Guard ships came close to the 12 mile territorial range of the islands in the East China Sea – shortly before a Chinese military aircraft passed through international airspace between Okinawa and the islands – in July. Japan immediately scrambled fighter jets.
“It was an unusual action that we have never seen before. We’ll keep monitoring with great interest,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said. “I would like to share an understanding that we need to observe a rule of law, not a rule by force.”
Chinese officials did not comment on the incursion.
“There have been provocative acts to Japan’s territorial land, sea and airspace,” Abe said, according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “With frequent approaches and the wandering of Chinese government vessels in surrounding waters, the security situation has become increasingly severe. I am determined to take the lead in protecting our territories.
“[The Senkaku Islands] are an integral part of Japan in terms of history and international laws. We have no intention of making a concession.”
The Japanese Coast Guard said Chinese ships were spotted Aug. 6, 13 and 16 near the disputed islands and the Japanese Coast Guard released photos of the ships from each day.
Following the latest incursion, Junichi Ihara, head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, lodged a protest with a senior diplomat at the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo.
The situation “remains the most serious issue for Beijing and Tokyo and continues to pose the most serious risk of unintended conflict,” said Jeffrey Hornung, professor of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu and a leading analyst on the Senkaku Islands.
“Ships [and] airplanes from both countries continue to engage in maritime cat-and-mouse games in the waters and airspace around the islands,” Hornung said. “For Beijing, these are efforts to challenge Japan’s administrative control.
“Japan, on the other hand, has no intention of escalating the situation. These constant intrusions into Japanese waters and airspace are seen as Beijing’s attempt to create a new status quo, forcing Japan to respond in kind,” Hornung said.
“The consequence, unfortunately, is a continuing likelihood of a misunderstanding or accidental collision occurring which could spiral out of control and bring about unintended conflict.”
Taiwan is the closest geographically to the islands. Japan’s Okinawa Island is the next closest, followed by the distant eastern mainland of China.
China, Japan and Taiwan lay claim to the five islets and three rock formations that make up the Senkaku Islands. China calls them the Diaoyutai Islands and Taiwan refers to them as the Tiaoyutai Islands.
Japan’s Abe visits adjacent islands
Abe and other top Japanese officials have increased public displays in recent weeks to retain control of the Senkaku Islands.
Abe became the first sitting prime minister to visit the Ishigaki and Miyako islands –adjacent to the Senkakus – since the 1972 reversion of the Senkaku and Okinawa islands from the United States to Japan.
Abe’s visit “was clearly an appeal to Japan’s ownership and a public relations moment as he visited the Japan Coast Guard and SDF [Self Defense Force] stationed on the islands and talked about the Chinese ships that enter the area and encouraged them to keep up the good work,” Hornung said.
“[Abe] also sent a clear message to China, saying he would never make any compromise.”
With an overwhelming win in the July 21 elections, Abe and a more united Upper House could resist attempts by China to further exert claims to the islands.
Japan’s April agreement with Taiwan allowing Taiwanese fishermen rights to legally fish in the 12 nautical-mile zone regarded as territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands was another blow to China’s claim on the area.
“The agreement divides the waters into two areas: One area where Taipei and Tokyo set fishing quotas and the number of ships that can operate, and a second area where fishing boats can operate freely,” Hornung said.
“While the agreement is undoubtedly a positive development, it is arguably a diplomatic coup for Tokyo as it essentially prevents Beijing and Taipei from finding common ground upon which to unite against Tokyo,” he said.
China drills for gas, plans more fields
While the islands remain unoccupied and undeveloped, reports dating back to 1969 suggest potentially lucrative oil and gas reserves lay in the area. That is one of the main reasons why the islands are considered so valuable.
Reports surfaced in mid-July that “Chinese state-run oil companies were not only drilling for gas in the East China Sea near the disputed islands, but planned on unilaterally developing seven new fields,” Hornung said.
“This is problematic because like the dispute over the islands, the two countries disagree on the maritime median line that lies between them in the East China Sea,” he said.
China criticizes Japan
Chinese officials publicly criticized Japan for what has become known as “the three nos” in Asia Pacific circles, according to the Japan Times.
Japan has given no recognition to China’s claim on the Senkaku Islands, no shelving of control or agreement that there is a jurisdictional dispute and no dialogue over the fate of the islands, Chinese officials said.
Japan refuses to negotiate, claiming there is no need. China says it will not negotiate with Japan unless the latter is at least willing to sit down and hear China’s concerns, something Japan refuses to do.
“It is natural for us to maintain a resolute stance over an issue that we can never make concessions on,” Suga said in early July.
Japan’s annual Defense White Paper, issued July 9, warned that China was engaged in dangerous actions and was trying to change things by force.
In response, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, warned Japan that if it further enhances militaristic actions over the Senkaku Islands, it would be “playing with fire [that could] lead the Japanese people into an abyss of disasters.”