The Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) reported a highly unusual cessation of Chinese activity in the contiguous zone of the Senkaku (Diaoyu, in Chinese) islands in the East China Sea between October 4 and October 16. The contiguous zone is a band of water adjacent to the 12 nautical miles territorial sea that extends up to 24 nm beyond the baselines. In this zone, a nation may exercise the control necessary to prevent the infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations within its territorial sea or territory, and punish infringement of those laws and regulations.
The total disappearance of Chinese patrols occurred shortly after a spike in activity in September, when the JCG reported sighting Chinese patrols in the contiguous zone on 27 days of the month. The number of Chinese ships totaled 110 in September — the highest number of Chinese ships present in the zone since November 2012, when Sino-Japanese tensions were at an all-time high following the purchase of three of the five islands by the Japanese government from a Japanese citizen two months earlier. The last time the JCG observed such an extended absence of Chinese patrols was this past February.
Historical data suggests that Chinese law enforcement ships maintain a fairly constant presence in the contiguous zone around the islands, which are administered by Japan but also claimed by China. Approximately every two weeks for the past year, China has dispatched a few vessels from the contiguous zone into the territorial waters to assert China’s sovereignty claim. Incursions into the territorial sea took place more frequently in the year following the transfer of ownership to the Japanese government, but settled into the pattern of two to three patrols per month beginning in October 2013. When cruising in the contiguous zone, Chinese vessels disperse with the onset of poor weather and return with calmer seas a few days later. While two typhoons crossed the East China Sea in October 2014, this does not appear to account for the entirety of the 13 day gap.
Why did the Chinese stop their activities? Although impossible to say for certain, it may be part of an overall effort to calm the proverbial waves in the Sino-Japanese relationship before a highly anticipated meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. The two sides have been engaged in active diplomacy to prepare for this first encounter, including a recent handshake between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Abe at a dinner event in Milan on October 17.
The temporary pause in patrols may be part of an ongoing behind-the-scenes bargaining process. On October 16, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that the Japanese had a three-point proposal for negotiations with China over the status of the Senkakus. First, Prime Minister Abe would reassert to President Xi that the Senkakus are an inherent part of Japanese territory. Abe would then acknowledge that China has a case as well, and finally propose settling the issue through mutual dialogue over time. This was reported at the end of the 13 day nonappearance of Chinese patrols. China has demanded that Abe admit the existence of a territorial dispute as a precondition for a bilateral meeting on the margins of APEC. Calling off the cutters may have been a goodwill gesture designed to help extract this concession from Japan.
Why would China signal with ships instead of words? Ships may represent a way for China to send a clear message to Japan while avoiding domestic publicity. First, the movements of ships are inseparably tied to the Senkaku dispute, which means that their activities are clear messages on the status of the dispute. Second, the presence and number of ships in the area often correlate to the rise and fall of tensions in the bilateral relationship, making it unlikely that their disappearance is mere coincidence. Third, the Chinese know that the Japanese pay close attention to the deployment pattern of Chinese law enforcement vessels. The JCG keeps a public record of Chinese activity in the territorial sea and contiguous zone. The absence of Chinese patrols in the contiguous waters is a conspicuous and visible gap in Japan’s records, especially when contrasted with the heightened activity in September (see the graphs below). Naturally, the Japanese would pay special attention to this anomaly, and those who favor an Abe-Xi meeting at APEC might use it to argue in favor of making a reciprocal gesture. At the same time, the absence of Chinese patrols could easily go unreported in China (or be explained away as weather-related). Thus, Beijing could reassure Tokyo of its good intentions while avoiding the domestic backlash that would make a Xi-Abe meeting infeasible.
Patrols are defined as the number of days on which Chinese ships were sighted during any given week. Source: http://www.kaiho.mlit.go.jp/senkaku/index.html
A final puzzle remains: why did Chinese ships return to the contiguous zone on October 17 and enter Japan’s territorial waters? As if on a timetable, the October 18 incursion into the 12 nm territorial sea occurred 15 days after the last — consistent with recent historical patterns. The return of the cutters may simply show that there are limits to how long Chinese leaders believe they should halt the normal operations of the Chinese Coast Guard in the absence of Japanese willingness to concede that a territorial dispute exists.
The two week halt of patrols in the contiguous zone may signal that China is willing to set a new normal in the East China Sea — provided that Japan acknowledges the existence of a territorial dispute. If Abe implicitly recognizes China’s claim, Chinese leaders may be convinced that a constant, escalated presence is unnecessary to assert Chinese sovereignty. Although Chinese patrols would continue in both the contiguous zone and the territorial seas, the frequency and size of the patrols would most likely decrease. The diminished tensions of October could become a new status quo rather than a temporary pause. The planned resumption of Sino-Japanese working-level talks aimed at preventing accidental clashes between naval vessels and aircraft in and over the East China Sea could further contribute to lowering tensions and improving bilateral relations.
Bonnie Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia in the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thomas Vien is an independent researcher focusing on China.