While the Chinese government deals with a stumbling economy, “de-risking” by trade partners, and smoldering crises in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the Sino-Indian border, its 12-year-old policy toward disputed maritime territory in the East China Sea continues to maintain high tensions with Japan to no good purpose.
The focal point of the tensions is a tiny island group that both countries claim, known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands and in China as the Diaoyu. China dispatched its coast guard ships to waters near the Senkakus for 352 days in 2023, a record high. Japan’s Kyodo News reported that China plans a daily Coast Guard presence this year, combined with the possibility of inspecting Japanese fishing boats, although Chinese officials have not publicly confirmed this.
In November, China’s top leader Xi Jinping visited the headquarters of the China Coast Guard department responsible for the East China Sea and emphasized the need to “constantly strengthen” China’s ability to protect its own claim. The months of October, November, and December 2023 all saw incidents near the islands in which Japanese Coast Guard ships intervened to back up Japanese fishing boats harassed by Chinese government vessels.
A People’s Liberation Army lieutenant general told Japanese media in December 2023 that China might seize the Senkakus as part of an invasion of Taiwan.
Several worrisome developments occurred in January 2024. PLA warships detected on the edges of Japan’s East China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ) prompted the Japanese military to send in a destroyer and an early warning and control system aircraft. Chinese Coast Guard vessels began warning Japanese military aircraft by radio to leave the airspace above and near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
The China Coast Guard announced it had ordered a Japanese fishing boat and several Japanese patrol ships to leave the area near the islands, adding, “We urge Japan to stop all illegal activities in the waters immediately and to ensure similar incidents would not happen again.”
While Tokyo often holds its peace to avoid antagonizing China, Masafumi Iida, an analyst at Japan’s National Institute of Defense Studies, reported that the Japanese government is “extremely concerned” that China is taking “escalatory actions” to press its sovereignty claims in the East China Sea, and might soon instigate confrontations similar to China’s use of water cannons and military-grade lasers against Philippine ships in the South China Sea.
The dispute between China and Japan over ownership of the islands goes back to the end of World War II. It ratcheted up in 1971 after a U.N. agency announced the likely presence of hydrocarbon deposits in the East China Sea. The dispute escalated again after the Japanese government purchased the islands from a private Japanese citizen in September 2012. This was at least partly an effort by Tokyo to contain tensions, as the far-right governor of Tokyo at the time was attempting to buy them. As owner, the Japanese government could restrict groups of Japanese citizens from making visits to the island, which invariably caused outrage in China.
Chinese official and public opinion, however, decried Japan’s nationalization of the islands as a new affront to Chinese sovereignty. China implemented a permanent surge of ships patrolling the sea around the islands to challenge Japan’s sovereignty claim. Cases of Chinese government vessels entering Japanese territorial waters (up to 12 nautical miles from the shoreline) rose from one between 2009 and 2011 to 23 in 2012 alone, and remained at about 20 to 30 annually thereafter.
Furthermore, China declared an ADIZ over the East China Sea, which partly overlaps with Japan’s and South Korea’s ADIZs, in 2013. China goes beyond typical international practice by demanding that foreign aircraft get permission from the Chinese government before flying into the Chinese ADIZ, even if the operators of these aircraft do not intend to enter Chinese territorial airspace. The Chinese government threatens “defensive emergency measures” against aircraft that do not comply.
Beijing’s apparent theory of victory was that increased and sustained pressure, and specifically the constant danger of an incident at sea that could escalate into a military conflict, would frighten Tokyo into submission. The Chinese government’s first demand was that Japan should recognize the Senkakus as disputed territory. Up to that time, Tokyo had insisted that Japanese ownership was beyond question and that Chinese incursions were simple trespassing.
Beijing’s policy has been counterproductive.
The Japanese government continues to insist that “The Senkaku Islands are indisputably an inherent part of the territory of Japan” and that “there exists no issue of territorial sovereignty to be resolved concerning the Senkaku Islands.” This might sound familiar to the Chinese, as it’s similar to what Beijing says about the South China Sea.
In 2022, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio said Japan would gradually double its defense spending to 2 percent of GDP and deploy controversial “counterstrike capabilities.” The Japanese government is increasing the budget for Japan’s Coast Guard.
To assure Japan, the U.S. government has repeatedly reaffirmed that the American commitment to defend Japan includes the Senkaku Islands. The U.S. and Japanese Coast Guards have deepened their security cooperation.
While failing to gain any substantial benefit, China’s policy still maximizes the chances of an accidental war that Beijing does not want.
China’s approach to the East China Sea territorial dispute is largely representative of its grand strategy. In contrast to his predecessors, Xi relies much more heavily on arm-twisting than charm in pursuit of China’s interests, although Xi also mixes in a heavy Orwellian component of portraying China as a uniquely and surrealistically benevolent country.
Xi’s default foreign policy seems to be bullying the opponent, either through economic coercion or military intimidation, in hopes of winning capitulation. If the opponent refuses to relent, Beijing might quietly back off while trying to save face, as occurred with China’s politically-motivated import restrictions against Australia in 2022-2023.
But Beijing is at least as likely to double down on bullying, even where the outcome is counterproductive. China’s threats have pushed Taiwan to increase its defense spending and elect a candidate from the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party for a third consecutive presidential term. Yet Beijing has not adjusted its policy; Chinese military ships and aircraft continue to signal hostility by operating close to Taiwan.
In another example, Beijing’s attempt to cow India into accepting Chinese encroachment on the Sino-India border culminated in the violent Galwan Valley clash of 2020. This resulted in partial Indian economic decoupling from China and greater Indian receptivity to strategic cooperation with the U.S. bloc. Nevertheless, China has continued to gradually seize territory even amid maximum Indian attention and suspicion.
Chinese vessels harass the Philippine missions to resupply the grounded World War II-era ship that serves as an outpost at Second Thomas Shoal in the Philippines’ EEZ. Chinese officials have demanded that the Philippines refrain from repairing the decaying ship. Instead, however, the Philippine government is seriously considering building a permanent outpost to supersede the ship.
Similarly, what Beijing is doing in the East China Sea is a zombie policy – unsuccessful but seemingly unkillable.
Two factors help keep the policy going. First, Xi has primed his people to expect immediate rather than deferred wins in foreign policy because China is now a great power. The most important wins involve territorial issues, in which the public has the strongest emotional investment. Xi’s reputation at home would suffer if a nationalistic citizenry perceived he was taking his boot off the neck of offending foreigners before achieving a tangible victory. A non-victory against Japan, which most Chinese believe deserves vengeance for its past crimes against China, would be especially disappointing.
Second, Xi is banking on the expectation that global economic centrality and relative military superiority will allow China to amass and maintain such an overwhelming advantage over its opponents that they will eventually accommodate Beijing’s agenda, in the East China Sea and elsewhere. This is questionable given that the United States refuses to decline and clings to its position of strategic leadership in the region, other countries worried about China are cooperating more, and China’s economic supremacy now looks uncertain.
Even its own interests suggest China should seek to quietly de-escalate its East China Sea policy, which is only stiffening Japan’s resolve to oppose what Tokyo sees as Chinese expansionism. This, however, is only one of several instances where Beijing seems unable to adjust in the face of failure.