Japan, China's Maritime Step
Image Credit: Chinese Embassy in Washington

Japan, China's Maritime Step


Many of the most salient disputes between China and its neighbors involve maritime issues. Moreover, as demonstrated by the current standoff between Beijing and Manila over Scarborough Shoal, China is often seen as assertive and uncompromising.  Nevertheless, maritime talks held with Japan this week suggest that China can be more flexible in managing its maritime disputes than most outsiders believe.

China and Japan agreed to establish this high-level consultative mechanism on maritime affairs in December 2011 during Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s first trip to Beijing. These talks, which will be held twice a year, are designed to enhance crisis management by increasing communication among related government agencies in both countries. As a press release from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) noted, the talks will serve a “platform” for increasing dialogue and communication, promoting cooperation, and managing disputes at sea.

Such a consultative mechanism is sorely needed. As the September 2010 crisis over the detention of a Chinese fishing captain near the Senkakus demonstrated, maritime disputes can escalate into a crisis.  In addition to the dispute over the sovereignty of the Senkakus, China and Japan have other maritime conflicts: the demarcation of their Exclusive Economic Zones in the East China Sea, China’s development of the Chunxiao natural gas field near the median line that Japan claims, fishing operations, and survey activities, among others.

The first round of talks was held at the departmental level, led by Yi Xianliang, Deputy Director of the MFA’s Department of Boundary and Maritime Affairs, on the Chinese side.  Importantly, the participants didn’t just include diplomats but also representatives from key Chinese bureaucracies involved in maritime affairs and their counterparts from Japan, including the Ministry of National Defense (PLAN), Ministry of Public Security (the Coast Guard), Ministry of Transportation (the Maritime Safety Agency), Ministry of Agriculture (the Bureau of Fisheries Administration), the State Energy Administration, and the State Oceanic Administration (the Marine Surveillance Force).

Details of the talks weren’t disclosed. The MFA press release simply noted that the two sides had exchanged views on maritime issues and cooperation, including the Senkaku Islands. Nevertheless, the creation of such a high-level mechanism on maritime affairs may represent a significant development in Chinese foreign policy for several reasons:

To start, the talks constitute the first comprehensive and institutionalized mechanism on maritime issues between China and Japan.  Previous talks over a 1997 bilateral fisheries agreement or the 2008 agreement on gas exploration in the East China Sea were conducted on an ad hoc basis and included only those actors directly involved in the issue being negotiated. Given the potential for any one maritime dispute to escalate and create a crisis, these talks may help stabilize Chinese-Japanese relations.

The present standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal notwithstanding, these talks with Japan reflect a pattern of Chinese moves to manage its territorial and maritime disputes with its neighbors. Examples of such efforts include a July 2011 agreement with ASEAN over guiding principles for implementing the 2002 code of conduct declaration in the South China Sea, an October 2011 agreement with Vietnam on basic principles for resolving maritime issues, and a January 2012 agreement with India for managing border incidents along their disputed frontier.

In addition, the talks suggest that China is strengthening interagency coordination in maritime affairs under the leadership of the MFA. A recent report from the International Crisis Group highlighted the lack of coordination among maritime actors as a source of Chinese assertiveness between 2009 and 2011 in the South China Sea. These talks bring together each of the “five dragons” of civil maritime law enforcement agencies that can influence China’s relations with its neighbors at sea, and may help increase coordination among them.  Moreover, by including the Defense Ministry, the talks may also strengthen coordination and communication between the MFA and the PLA.

Finally, the talks provide a model that might be used to address other maritime issues elsewhere, including in the Yellow Sea with South Korea and even perhaps in the South China Sea. Clashes between Chinese fishermen and South Korean authorities have reached a new peak in recent years, with almost 500 Chinese vessels having been fishing illegally in Korean waters. Likewise, despite a joint fishing agreement, the two sides haven’t demarcated their maritime jurisdiction under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

To be sure, this new mechanism that China and Japan have created hasn’t yet been put to the test. Still, it suggests that China can pursue more flexible and collaborative approaches in its maritime disputes with neighboring states – and that Beijing acknowledges the importance of such flexibility.

M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @fravel.

May 24, 2012 at 23:59

@John Chan: Because it’s a wrong thing to do. PH realises that china has nothing to do with this area, so by accepting a bilateral discussion is, in a way, inadvertently accepting china’s (non-existent) position. The PH is doing the right thing. Congrats to them.

May 24, 2012 at 12:26

Funny how china would not dare to bring any of its ships to harrash Japanese fishermen as it did with smaller neighbors. Why? Because they know too well that Japan Navy would blow away any of chinese ships.

Typical of china and chinese. Acting tough with the weak and kissing butt of the strong.

John Chan
May 22, 2012 at 11:23

Why is Philippines so scared of bilateral negotiations? Nobody can bring guns to the negotiation table, both sides have the same amount of people sitting face to face in a room, it is a match of talent on the level playing field.

It seems Filipinos do not have faith in their government representatives, and it is hard to blame them, because Philippines is an artificial construct by the European invaders without local participation, Manila regime does not represent the people of the Philippines islands.

May 21, 2012 at 18:41

@ imperium vita

U r judge and executioner with one stroke of the pen

May 21, 2012 at 14:01

If International Arbitration is “a venue that is unfamiliar and indeed politically alien and unacceptable” to China, then why is it a member of said international community? And then why did they applaud the UNCLOS decision in 2004 that dismissed Okinotori Atoll in the Philippine Sea against Japanese claims?


Chinese diplomats applauded that decision, yet for the Philippine invitation they don’t want to participate?

How can Philippine do a bilateral talk to China when the whole world knows China has the Philippines by the throat? Militarily and economically, the Philippines have nothing to put it on equal footing with China if they decide to pursue a one-on-one discussion. And to add to that, its not just Scarborough Shoal that is being debated, its also the Spratlys, and there are many claimants for that dispute. But the biggest concern still is the chinese ‘Nine Dash Claim’ that encompasses the whole sea region. Such a baseless and unreasonable claim that almost touches the beaches of other nations, and removes all of Brunei’s sea territory (you can’t take a swim without getting arrested for intruding in chinese waters).

I personally have more faith in the international community to decide how best to manage the territorial disputes in south east asia than leaving it in chinese hands. Hell, if Chinese somehow left Spratlys I believe the other SEA nations could probably settle that dispute themselves.

May 20, 2012 at 23:39

The outcomes of Vietnam-China and Kirghizistan-China land border bilateral negotiations are hardly proofs of fair processes. Of course, there were secret gives-and-takes that we will never know (considering the massive “soft power” that China has). Precisely, that’s the danger of this type of bargains in closed door, especially when people do not trust their own government, which is the norm rather than exception in this region.

papa john
May 20, 2012 at 23:24

Excellent piece of counter-argument! You hit right on the spot.
Keep up the good work. The Chinese can’t debate honestly.

May 20, 2012 at 13:57

The Philippines offered to take the dispute to the international level but Beijing stubbornly refused. China won’t deal with ASEAN or the UN on the Spratly Islands conflict because it uses a divide and conquer strategy. China also knows that no neutral decision-making body would support their greedy claims. China has to negotiate with Japan because, unlike the PI, Japan has a navy which can make China pay dearly for their imperialistic ambitions. It’s ironic that you use the term “ intrinsic moral superiority” to describe the attitude of the Philippines. Contrast that with the racist, condescending view which Chinese people have for Philippine people!

May 19, 2012 at 13:28

As the world’s 2 largest economy, which China only recently overtook, and with a robust Coast Guard of its own, Japan can negotiate as an equal with China on these maritime issues. Personally, I wouldn’t expect to see the same fair play attitude from China in the case of similar negotiations with countries such as The Philippines, Vietnam, or Malaysia. In these situations, China calls for bilateral negotiations as a code meaning “Give us what we want, because you can’t do anything to stop us from taking it.”

May 19, 2012 at 03:48

There is a very good reason why China is more flexible on the maritime dispute with Japan: they are engaged in bilateral negotiations on the matter while the Philippines refuses to do so.

Why is this important? Firstly, in a bilateral setting, the two parties can propose solutions without any need to constrain themselves to other precedents or the the interests of third parties. Secondly, the forum of bilateral boundary dispute is one deeply familiar to the leaders of China, who has used them to permanently resolve boundary disputes with Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan,and Vietnam in the past. Thirdly, there is an implicit assumption of equivalency in the claims made by the two sides which prevents any one party from developing excess resentment against the other, because both place greater value on the validation of their position by their opponent instead of some intrinsic, perhaps moral, value in their claim.

The case with the Philippines stands in stark contrast. First, the Philippines’ position is intracatly tied with the military standing of the United States, which means that the Philippines cannot negotiate as an autonomous unitary entity and therefore is less likely to engender reciprocation from China(one might also add that Philippines is deeply fragmented domestically which further prevents unitary decision making). Secondly, the Philippines insists upon dragging the dispute to a venue that is unfamiliar and indeed politically alien and unacceptable to China, which maintains that international institutions do not have to right to adjudicate on matters of national sovereignty. Thirdly, the Philippines does not use “normal” arguments but rather places most of their political emphasis on a kind of “intrinsic moral superiority,” or in other words they seem to believe that David is always more justified in demanding things of Goliath. This last point is also why they have so far been unwilling to contemplate mutual concessions on sovereignty, which the Chinese position of bilateral negotiations implicitly assumes.

The standoff has also passed a critical moment, when the Philippines could have negotiated a solution with the Chinese leadership before the situation became fodder for mutual nationalism. Now it is too late, and for the Chinese public it is no longer acceptable to concede any point to the Philippino government. If that country had greater resonance or admiration within China (which Japan grudgingly possesses due to its economic prowess), that moment could perhaps be delayed or even neutralized. But the Philippines does not, it is neither admired in China nor particularly well-liked, especially after the deaths of Chinese /Hong Kong tourists in a botched bus hijacking rescue.

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