As the prominence of China in the geopolitical arena continues to increase, recent naval activities have intensified tensions with Japan. According to reports, Japan is currently monitoring waters near islands that are disputed with China in the East China Sea. This has resulted from a naval vessel rom the world’s most populous nation operating in a new area in the region for the first time.
East China Sea tensions
Japan has acknowledged the existence of the Chinese ship, and indicated that it continues to assess the situation. The Defense Ministry of Japan has made an official statement on the subject, indicating that late on Thursday a Japanese P-3C patrol aircraft observed the Dongdiao-class intelligence vessel near territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands.
These waters are currently administered by Japan, but China does not share its opinion on the subject! China claims this region as the Diaoyus, and Chinese activities in the region suggest that the nation is becoming increasingly hawkish. According to observations of this activity, the Chinese vessel moved back and forth in the area on a repeated basis during Thursday evening. It eventually departed and never breached the 12-nautical-mile territorial waters belonging to Japan, but is clearly a source of concern for the East Asian nation.
Although Japan cannot specifically accuse China of inappropriate behavior over the incident, the official response has nevertheless being cautiously critical. The Japanese defence Minister, Gen Nakatani, has already spoken out about the incident, describing the movement of the vessel as unusual during a press conference. Nakatani explained it to reporters that the vessel made “repeated eastward and westward moves in one day”.
As the situation unfolds, Japan has stated that its defense ministry will continue to monitor the Chinese navy, in an attempt to protect its own waters. Nakatani stated that the Japanese navy will continue to “make utmost efforts in patrolling the sea and air surrounding Japan”.
Despite the somewhat critical tone that Japan has taken over the subject, China has both defended its actions and the right of its navy to engage in the reported operations. Beijing indicated that it believed the actions of the ship to be merely standard, and that Japan had no cause for concern whatsoever, or indeed reason to be defensive.
Whether this position is believable is debatable, as China has already indicated in the South China Sea region that it is willing to engage in a policy of expansionism. The general activity of the Chinese navy would seem to indicate an emboldened policy from the superpower, in line with the fact that it is now the world’s largest economy.
Nonetheless, commenting on the activities of China in the East China Sea region, spokesman Hong Lei suggested during a regular press briefing that the Chinese vessel was merely conducting normal activities. Lei was also at pains to point out that China has not broken any legislation, and was complying with any legal requirements related to naval activity. “It is in line with international law,” Lei stated, “there is nothing disputable about that.”
Due to their geographical proximity, Japan and China are natural rivals, and have frequently come to diplomatic blows over the ownership of the uninhabited islets in the East China Sea. Anyone who has been following the activities of China closely will realise that the situation in the East China Sea is extremely reminiscent of the policy China has been adopting in the Spratlys.
On several occasions already, Chinese ships, mostly coastguards, and aircraft have approached the islands in the East China Sea to test the response of the Japanese. Clearly China believes that it should lay claim to the islands in the region, and there are obvious similarities with several other aspects of Chinese foreign policy.
For example, China has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the sovereign status of Taiwan, claiming the nation as Chinese Taipei. China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, and insists that nations cannot have official relations with both China and Taiwan. Considering the increasing economic and diplomatic power of China, this ensures that Taiwan is only able to maintain diplomatic relations with a handful of countries.
In recent years, the relationship between Japan and China has declined considerably, particularly since the Japanese government moved to nationalize some of the islands in the East China Sea. This was initiated in September 2012, and met with a chilly response from Beijing, which believes that it ought to have claim over the territories.
Yet despite the political, territorial and diplomatic quarrels between the two nations, the economic ties between China and Japan cannot be denied. This is an equally natural situation to the rivalry between the two nations, as China and Japan are the two largest economies in Asia by some distance. In many ways, Japan has charted a course that China should follow naturally, having established itself as a very Westernised and contemporary economy before the rapid expansion of China’s fiscal progress. Japan indicated how ancient culture can modernize to succeed in the modern world, and China has certainly learned lessons from this process.
However, distrust and tension remain a significant part of the relationship between the two nations considering their completely differing views on the control of this region. China is wary of moves by the Japanese government to raise the military profile of the nation, while Tokyo is concerned with the increasing regional and global assertiveness of Beijing.
This latest incident represents the first time that a Chinese naval ship has operated in the area between the disputed islands and the populated southern Japanese island of Miyako. This is not only a significant moment for the region, but also indicative of the increasing confidence of China and its military.
Nakatani declined to comment on the motives of the vessel, but did comment that the Chinese military “is rapidly boosting their activities at sea and in the air”. There has been no response from the United States yet, but this is a further indication that China is playing an increasingly important role in geopolitical issues.