James Holmes

Another Twist in the China-Japan Island Dispute

The arrival of Chinese near disputed islands prompts a blunt response from Tokyo.

Uncharacteristically blunt language issued forth from Tokyo on Tuesday, after the news broke that eight Chinese maritime-enforcement ships had entered the waters around the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. While a Chinese presence in these waters has become commonplace in recent months, this was the largest flotilla to fly the PRC flag near the archipelago. The deployment reportedly came after Japanese nationalists ventured near the islands in small craft. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reported instructing Japanese forces "to take resolute measures against attempts to enter our territorial waters and make a landing." If Chinese personnel landed on the islets, added Abe, "then of course we will forcibly expel them."

There are a few question marks to the encounter. First consider the Chinese side. Some news reporting attributed the Chinese action to Japanese officials' recent visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. Such visits are guaranteed to raise hackles not just in China but in South Korea. It stands to reason that there may have been some link between the two events. But correlation isn't causation. Beijing made no explicit connection between Yasukuni and the Senkakus. This week's maritime incursion, moreover, differed from previous Sino-Japanese encounters only in scale, not in kind. And China's leadership has vowed to maintain a regular if not standing presence in waters that lap against the archipelago.

Tokyo's break with low-key diplomacy was more intriguing. Sovereignty is about control of territory. By asserting jurisdiction over the archipelago and adjacent waters, Beijing has in effect asserted the right to land personnel there at its discretion. But again, this is nothing new. It's part and parcel of China's claim. Did Prime Minister Abe have some reason to expect a landing now? Was he afraid Japanese hotheads would go ashore and Chinese mariners would follow? If so, Abe was probably trying to mount a deterrent. Displaying capability while laying down a marker about Tokyo's resolve could dissuade Beijing from doing something rash – and irrevocable.

The larger context may have played some part as well. In late March a PLA Navy flotilla paid a visit to James Shoal, reaffirming Beijing's claim to "indisputable sovereignty" over most of the South China Sea. The Malaysian government was moved to protest the foreign naval presence a mere 44 nautical miles off its shores, and deep within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. While ASEAN holds out hope for a code of conduct in Southeast Asian waters, that hope dimmed from already weak candlepower with the PLA Navy's fresh provocations. Abe may have meant to serve notice that Japan, a great seafaring power, falls into a different category than weak South China Sea states. It can push back.

Sino-Japanese relations may be entering a new phase. This bears watching.