July 17, 2012

Below the Radar: Rising Tensions in the East China Sea

While there has been a lot of attention given to China’s territorial contests with its Asian neighbors in the South China Sea, just as important is the dispute between Japan and China in the East China Sea, where both countries lay claim to an uninhabited island group near Taiwan – known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China – that are rich with fish stocks, as well as potentially undersea energy and mineral resources.

Until recently, Japan has managed to avoid drawing Beijing into a more aggressive dispute over the island group.  Although the islands are technically administered by Tokyo, the government has promoted a strategy that avoids the perception that Japan is attempting to nationalize the islands by renting them from a private landowner and avoiding commercial or private development on the islands.

But this “hands off” strategy has been criticized by nationalist leaders in Japan who are looking to change the current arrangement. According to an April report in the Japan Times, Tokyo’s Governor Shintaro Ishiara said that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government was negotiating with the landowners to purchase the islands by the end of 2012. “Tokyo will protect the Senkaku Islands. No matter which country dislikes it, no one should have a problem,” Governor Ishiara said in April. Since then, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government “has set up a bank account to collect donations for the purchase,” according to The Washington Post, which by some reports collected nearly a billion yen ($13 million) in one month.

The proposal to purchase the island group has exacerbated tensions between Tokyo and Beijing in recent months. Just last week, Beijing dispatched three fishing patrols boats into the waters off the islands in order to defend its “sacred territory.” The maneuver drew significant criticism from Japanese leaders who claim that China violated its territorial waters, an intrusion Japanese officials say is “extremely serious,” forcing Tokyo to temporarily recall its ambassador to China on Sunday until officials in Tokyo could craft the right response to the intrusion. (The Washington Post reported this morning that the Japanese ambassador has returned for talks with Chinese officials.)

The recent tensions are reminiscent of a September 2010 standoff between Tokyo and Beijing, when Japanese coast guard officials arrested Chinese fishermen for illegally fishing in the waters off the disputed islands. The situation escalated, prompting Beijing to temporarily sever diplomatic relations with Tokyo and preventing the export of rare earth elements to Japan, which are used in high-end electronics.

As the United States refocuses its foreign policy in the Asia Pacific, territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas will continue to grow in importance and are likely to be a defining feature of foreign relations in the region for decades. U.S. policymakers would do well to continue to watch these developments in the East China Sea, perhaps serving as an intermediary between Japan and China in order to diffuse diplomatic tensions between Asia’s two economic giants. This would serve broader U.S. interests to strengthen ties with Japan while also preserving open access to the sea lanes that are vital to the global economy.

Image: Map of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Courtesy of Wikimedia.