Tokyo Report

There’s Been A Quiet Decline in Senkaku Confrontations

Chinese government ships are reducing visits, plus weekend Japanese security and foreign policy links.

There’s Been A Quiet Decline in Senkaku Confrontations
Credit: Al Jazeera English via

Thursday was the second anniversary of the nationalization of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands by Japan. In anticipation, the Japanese Coast Guard increased its surveillance this week, while on Wednesday four Chinese government vessels entered the contested territorial waters. While this might seem like a now routine increase in tension, it is actually a much more muted response than last year’s eight vessels. Not just on the anniversary, but fewer Chinese government ships in general have been entering the area this year. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, in the first year after Japan nationalized the islands Chinese vessels sailed into the disputed waters 216 times, but only 101 times the following year.

There is speculation that China has reduced the number of government vessels around the Senkakus due to heightened tension in the South China Sea. One JCG official noted that while Chinese government vessels used to enter the waters in groups of five, yet they have recently only arrived in groups of three or four in most cases.

However, the number of Chinese fishing vessels has increased dramatically. With just 39 such vessels enter the disputed waters in 2012, the number has risen to 88 in 2013 and 207 this year as of Tuesday. Some JCG officials speculate is has to do with changing sea currents that have driven larger schools of fish into the waters, yet the Japanese government considers Chinese government and fishing vessels to be working more or less in tandem, and still plan to increase the number of patrol vessels in the area from 12 to as many as 18. Japanese fishermen off Okinawa have also raised concerns that the increased number of illegal Chinese fishing boats is hurting their catch.

Meanwhile, Japan and China’s top naval commanders talked informally during an International Seapower Symposium reception on Tuesday hosted by the U.S. in Rhode Island. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy commander Wu Shengli said an official meeting with Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces chief of staff Katsutoshi Kawano was not possible before their respective leaders had met. However, according to the Jiji Press the two “agreed to communicate more closely to help avoid unexpected incidents at sea,” while Wu said China had begun to implement a naval code of conduct “to avoid ocean contingencies,” which was adopted at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in China last April.

Russia’s Ambassador to Japan Evgeny Afanasiev said on Thursday in an interview with Russia’s Rossiyaskaya Gazeta that President Vladimir Putin’s anticipated visit to Japan this fall will likely be postponed. While on Friday Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said no official decision had been made on the visit, the government also told the Yomiuri Shimbun that it planned to follow its fellow G7 nations by increasing sanctions on Russia over its involvement in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. Japan had received criticism from its U.S. and European counterparts for its largely symbolic and ineffective initial sanctions on Russian officials with limited ties to, and assets in, Japan. Government sources said Japan is considering “penalties in the financial and energy sectors” in line with its allies. However, the sources also stated “the government has decided to seek ways to achieve dialogue with Russia even after the additional sanctions are imposed,” and that “the Japanese and Russian governments plan to avoid postponing Putin’s trip to Japan and make necessary readjustments instead.”

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In a final and slightly bizarre news item originating from Iceland, earlier this year Ma Jisheng, China’s ambassador to Iceland, was taken away by Chinese state security for spying for Japan. Ma allegedly became a spy during his service in the Tokyo embassy from 2004 to 2008. The story initially appeared in Hong Kong’s Ming Po newspaper before finally reaching Reuters via the Chinese language Mingjing News, based in New York. China’s foreign ministry has yet to comment on Ma’s whereabouts or who is currently representing Beijing in Reykjavik. There is no information about what kind of secrets Ma may have passed to Japan or how he was turned. The Japanese government has taken a muted tone, saying it is aware of the story but that it would refrain from commenting as it is a domestic issue for Beijing. While espionage is certainly not unusual, the public revelation that China’s foreign service had been compromised at such a high level will be embarrassing for Beijing domestically, particularly as popular nationalist sentiment against Japan has spiked since the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute began in 2012.