August 22, 2014

Tensions Mounting in the East China Sea

By Zachary Hosford

Waking up to another news article about a close encounter in or above the East China Sea has become routine. But when one looks more closely at the recent developments in these contested waters, a trend emerges that is not only worrisome but also has significant consequences for security in the region.

While Japan, China and Taiwan all claim the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Tiaoyutai Islands, China stands out among them for its aggressive behavior in the air and maritime domains. Since announcing an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a large portion of the East China Sea in November 2013, it has been involved in several high-profile run-ins. In May 2014, during the same timeframe as a large Sino-Russian naval exercise in the area, Chinese Su-27 fighter aircraft flew over the ECS, on one occasion coming within 150 feet of a Japanese surveillance plane flying near the islands. Three weeks later, a second – and even closer – encounter between a Chinese Su-27 and Japan reconnaissance aircraft was reported where the ADIZ zones of China and Japan overlap. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) apparently has scrambled fighters in response to Chinese planes 232 times between January and June 2014, and according to the Japanese Ministry of Defense’s 2014 white paper, the JASDF scrambled in response to Chinese aircraft 306 times in 2012 and 405 times in 2013. 

The contestation of the area, of course, takes place on the sea’s surface as well. China continues to attempt to undermine Japanese administration of the disputed islands through the former’s newly consolidated coast guard. China uses its maritime constabulary forces to either breach or patrol near the territorial waters within 12 miles of the disputed islands. 

There have been some periodic downturns in Chinese activity in the East China Sea, however. But the underlying cause behind any occasional downturn in China Coast Guard (CCG) patrols is unclear. In addition to hypothesis advanced by M. Taylor Fravel and Alastair Iain Johnston – that the Chinese are signaling a willingness not to escalate further – there are other reasons that could explain Chinese behavior. The CCG itself could be facing operational limitations (while growing in capability, the CCG is stretched by both the East China Sea sovereignty-challenging missions and high op-tempo in the South China Sea) or, perhaps more worrisome, China may have judged that the high number of early intrusions already has achieved its goals of challenging administrative control, and therefore, has no need for continuing that high rate. Of greater concern, however, is that Chinese provocative actions did not halt altogether in that time frame – e.g. the ECS ADIZ announcement – indicating that the CCG’s territorial intrusions are a necessary but not sufficient metric for judging Chinese intentions. The very lack of certainty that Fravel and Johnston note suggests that if the Chinese, were, in fact, attempting to signal the intent to de-escalate, the signal wasn’t very strong.

On top of this, China has reacted negatively to positive Japanese signaling in the past. One of the most visible examples of this was when Japan canceled a joint exercise with the United States to practice re-capturing a remote island from foreign forces in October 2012. Instead of reacting positively, China increased pressure, including flying a surveillance plane through Japan’s airspace above the islands.

So far, steps taken by the United States to assure and deter and steps by Japan to increase its capabilities and reduce restrictions have not sufficiently lowered the tensions. While President Barack Obama reaffirmed in April 2014 that the disputed islands fall under Article V of the U.S.-Japan security treaty and Japan’s Cabinet adopted a new interpretation of the right to exercise collective self-defense, the latest Pew Research polling showing that only seven percent of Japanese citizens have a favorable view of China indicate that we may see elevated tensions for the foreseeable future. 

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