Since early April, when U.S. forces launched missile strikes on Syria, the international community has been pondering the question of whether or not the U.S. administration of President Donald J. Trump will use force against North Korea. In this context, Japan has been particularly wary of the possibility of China taking advantage of the opportunity to dispatch maritime militias, China Coast Guard ships and People’s Liberation Amy units to the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands) in an attempt to weaken Japan’s administration over the islands.
According to data published by the Japan Coast Guard, three to four China Coast Guard ships have sailed in the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands almost daily over the past several years, weather permitting. They also make about three intrusions into Japanese territorial waters every month. In August 2016, more than 20 China Coast Guard ships showed up in waters surrounding the Senkaku with hundreds of Chinese fishing boats, exercising fishery control in the contiguous zone.
China has been taking these actions to cook up the fiction that Japan’s administrative power does not extend to the Senkaku Islands. China knows that if it does decide to seize the islands by force it would have to contend with both the Self-Defense Forces of Japan and U.S. armed forces. China is aware that such an attempt would be risky and costly. In the meantime, China knows Japan cannot exercise its right to self-defense and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty does not function in a “gray zone” situation when it is fishing boats and Coast Guard ships that threaten Japan’s administration.
Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty limits the scope of the Treaty’s application to “territories under the administration of Japan.” Accordingly, the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty does not apply to the Northern Territories held by Russia and the Liancourt Rocks occupied by South Korea. By producing a gray zone situation, China is challenging Japan’s administration over the Senkaku Islands, hoping to prevent a Japan-U.S. joint response, and issuing domestic propaganda to the effect that China is exercising its jurisdiction over the territories.
The Japan Coast Guard’s special task force, consisting of 12 patrol vessels, to defend the Senkaku Islands heavily patrols waters surrounding the islands. Indeed, they are keeping watch over the waters on a 24-7 basis. Meanwhile, the Japan Coast Guard and the Maritime Self-Defense Force are keeping in close contact with each other. Japan’s administration over the Senkaku Islands remains unshaken. Indeed, it was ships from the Japan Coast Guard, not the China Coast Guard, that rescued crew members when a Chinse fishing boat foundered near the Senkaku Islands in the summer of 2016. There were China Coast Guard ships in nearby waters when this accident occurred, but they were not able to rescue the vessel from their own country.
The U.S. government also remains firmly committed to the Senkaku Islands. The United States has made clear that it intends to take no position on the question of territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands since the return of Okinawa to Japan in 1972. However, Washington has acknowledged that the islands fall under Japan’s administration and are within the scope of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. Under the Obama administration, the secretary of State, the secretary of Defense and the president himself declared this U.S. position repeatedly. Going further, they stated that the United States opposes all actions that threaten Japan’s administration and to make it clear that Washington does not accept China’s efforts to produce a gray zone situation.
Despite the Obama administration’s commitment to the Senkaku Islands, China never stopped creating a gray zone situation. Until recently, three China Coast Guard ships entered Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands three times each month, remaining in the waters for two hours on each occasion, in a manner that has become known as the 3-3-2 Method. However, this has recently shifted to the 3-4-2 Method, in which four China Coast Guard ships enter and stay in the waters for two hours. The China Coast Guard is rapidly increasing the number of patrol boats in its possession, and is expected to commit 10,000-ton class ships to the Senkaku Islands in due course. The issue for Japan at the moment is to reduce the number of China Coast Guard ships sent to waters around the Senkaku Islands and the frequency of their territorial intrusions.
President Donald J. Trump has stepped up the U.S. commitment to the Senkaku Islands. The joint declaration issued after his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in early February 2017 expressly stated that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands and the United States opposes all unilateral actions aimed at harming Japan’s administration over the islands. In 2014, former U.S. President Barack Obama verbally stated the U.S. obligation to defend the islands. However, the statement came with the proviso that the United States would not take any position on the territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, which is a stance the U.S. government repeatedly conveyed to Japan from the Nixon administration. Trump was the first U.S. president to state the U.S. obligation to defend the Senkaku in writing without any reference to the proviso regarding the territorial sovereignty. In other words, Trump gave rise to the possibility that the United States would acknowledge Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands.
The requirements for exercising the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty are not legally affected no matter what position the U.S. government may take on the territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, as long as the government acknowledges that the islands fall under Japan’s administration. It is, however, assumed that China does not want the U.S. government to make a declaration of its position on the sovereignty because a declaration would strengthen U.S. support for Japan politically. For that reason, the U.S. can expect to influence China’s actions by telling China it will reexamine its traditional position on the territorial sovereignty unless the country reduces the number of China Coast Guard ships sent to waters around the Senkaku Islands and the frequency of their territorial intrusions. By so doing, the United States should manage the gray zone situation and press China to solve problems through dialogue, instead of seeking to change the status quo by force.
Tetsuo Kotani is a Senior Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.