Over at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, M. Taylor Fravel and Alastair Iain Johnston performed a data analysis on the frequency of Chinese coast guard patrols near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. They found that since October 2013 there has been a remarkable drop in the frequency of Chinese patrols in the Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial waters, defined as the area within 12 nautical miles of the islands. Before October 2013, Fravel and Johnston write, “China conducted as many as four patrols per week within the islands’ territorial waters … [Since October 2013], the frequency of patrols has dropped and maintained a fairly steady average of about one patrol into the 12-mile zone every couple of weeks.”
Fravel and Johnston also noted that China’s patrols into the less-sensitive “contiguous zone” (between 12 and 24 nautical miles from the islands) “dropped significantly after October 2013.” Patrols of these areas are less fraught with meaning, as the contiguous zone is not a part of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands’s territorial waters. Accordingly, Chinese patrols in this less-provocative area are more frequent than incursions into the actual territorial waters.
Fravel and Johnston cautioned that “we are reluctant to infer too much about China’s bargaining strategies from these data alone.” Still, they raise the hypothesis that the reduction in patrol frequencies might “signal a willingness not to escalate further.”
The timing of the reduction of patrols is indeed curious, as it fits poorly with the general trend of diplomatic relations between these two countries. Japan-China relations have been strained for years, since the Japanese government nationalized several of the disputed islands in September 2012. However, relations actually took a nosedive in November and December of 2013 — after the Chinese coast guard decreased the frequency of its patrols.
In November 2013, China unexpectedly announced the establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, including the disputed islands. This resulted in angry reactions from Japan and the United States (and continued to be raised as an issue even during Secretary Hagel’s visit to East Asia last week). China responded angrily, accusing the U.S. and Japan of having double standards (both countries have their own ADIZs, with Japan’s ending just 81 miles off of China’s coast at the closest point) and of seeking to play up the “China threat.”
Then, in December, Japan approved a new National Security Strategy as well as updating its National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-Term Defense Program. China denounced these moves as signaling a renunciation of Japan’s pacifist constitution and a return to Japan’s militaristic past. China-Japan relations reached an all-time low after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on December 26, 2013. China took the visit as confirmation of its previous claims that Abe sought to recreate a militaristic, imperialistic Japan.
In a statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang summarized China’s position on the Yasukuni Shrine visit:
The Japanese leader’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine is, in nature, an attempt to whitewash the history of aggression and colonialism by militarist Japan, overturn the just trial of Japanese militarism by the international community and challenge the outcome of WWII and the post-war international order.
This statement would provide the basis for a constant refrain of harsh rhetoric from China aimed at Japan. Over the next months, China’s foreign ministry would take every opportunity to criticize Japan generally and Shinzo Abe specifically. Topics both new (controversial remarks made by NHK officials) and old (the question of Japan’s stockpiled uranium and plutonium) were all routinely brought up and criticized by Chinese foreign ministry spokespeople as well as in Chinese (and even global) media.
Interestingly, according to Fravel and Johnston’s analysis, even while China was ramping up its PR offensive against Japan, Beijing did not increase the frequency of its patrols in the disputed territories. Instead, patrols remained below the peak levels reached prior to October 2013. As Fravel and Johnston warn, there are many potential reasons for the change, including the possibility that the noted decrease in patrols is actually only a statistical artifact. For one thing, China may be decreasing naval patrols only to increase aircraft patrols—Japan announced recently that it scrambled more fighter jets against Chinese aircraft from March 2013 to March 2014 than in any other year.
Given the level of rhetoric by Chinese officials between October 2013 and early spring of this year, it’s hard to imagine that China was trying to signal a detente with Japan during this period. However, adopting the hypothesis that China was seeking to deescalate naval tensions (and decrease the potential for a dangerous accident), there is a potential explanation for the inverse connection between naval patrols and diplomatic anger. China’s leaders may have decided to shift their main focus away from real-world confrontations and more towards a ‘war of words.’ Such a strategy would keep up China’s pressure on Japan, but would reduce the chances of an actual conflict. In other words, a decrease in naval patrols combined with an increase in public criticisms of Japan may have been Beijing’s way of continuing to attack Tokyo while minimizing China’s risks.
Recently, though, much of China’s sharp rhetoric towards Japan has died off. Foreign Ministry press conferences are no longer dominated by criticisms of Japan. In fact, the Foreign Ministry had a remarkably restrained reaction to Japan’s official easing of its arms exports regime. There were no mentions of “Japanese militarism” or of Japan “overturning the post-war international order,” phrases in near-constant use between December 2013 and this spring. Even a visit this week to Yasukuni Shrine by a Japanese minister didn’t provoke the sort of criticism that we saw previously. In a statement, spokesman Hong Lei condemned “the current Japanese Cabinet’s wrong attitude towards history” and urged Japan to “earnestly face up to and reflect upon its history of aggression, and make a clean break with militarism.” It’s a strong statement, but a far cry from the several-paragraph diatribe that accompanied Abe’s visit to the shrine last year.
With both rhetoric and naval patrols of the disputed area down from their peaks, China may be signaling its openness to improving China-Japan relations. As Fravel and Johnston note, the only way to be sure of this is to gauge the Chinese reaction (both diplomatically and in terms of naval patrols) if Japan were to send “cooperative signals.”