Table of Contents
2. Roots of Conflict
3. China's Strategy
4. Japan's Strategy
Nobody would have imagined sixty years ago, that China would break out so fast from its third-world country status and become not only a leading regional power in Asia but also challenge the West in global domination. But the 21st century brings new realities, in a rapidly evolving geopolitical shift of our times. This shift not only upsets power balance in the economic sphere but also causes old ways of geopolitical struggle to emerge, which means increased territorial feuds and ambitions. Such ambitions are not new for authoritarian states like China, as we have seen the occupation of Tibet, but building artificial military islands to claim ownership over international waters is a new kind of challenge for the international community. But not only claiming rights over international waters is enough for Chinese authorities, they also lay claim over territories belonged to neighbors. Chinas expanding presence and the rapid militarization of the South China Sea over the last 7 years affect the peripheral power Japan greatly, which is keen to secure its access to and from the South China Sea. Japan has authentic concerns as an island nation with little natural resources, which lifeline passes through the South-China Sea. But this is not the only reason for concern, as China is also expanding in the East China Sea. There China claims Sovereignty over the Japanese Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in Chinese). The Senkaku islands are having strategic, economical, and symbolic importance and therefore a considerable threat from China comes into question. Only recently Xi Jinping, President of the People's Republic of China, made clear in his speech for the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, that China will not allow “sanctimonious preaching” or bullying from foreign forces, and anyone who tries “will find themselves on a collision course with a steel wall forged by 1.4 billion people” (Cf. Nikkei Asia 2021). If in the past China did not want to cause itself unnecessary headaches for minor, irrelevant disputes, today China has an entirely different position in the world, does not shy away from conflict, and can afford to impose its will to shape an international order which no longer challenges Chinese interests and values, but is more accommodating to them.
Recent changes in Japanese foreign policy and their policing activities towards the Senkaku Islands might be caused by increased Chinese activities in the East China Sea. Since 2013, we can observe that Japan's policy is moving away from its peaceful post-war constitution to a more active defense policy. This study is going to try to find out if Chinese activities are provoking Japanese response. Therefore I formulate the following research question: Why did Japan change its military policy since 2013 and was it caused by increased Chinese activities in the East-China Sea? To answer my research question, I will first discuss the roots of the Senkaku dispute. Next, I will discuss China's strategy to assert its interests around the Senkaku's. Then I will examine Japan's actions to protect the islands. In a final step, I will analyze whether Japan's actions are just responses to China.
2. Roots of Conflict
In the East China Sea Japan is directly involved in a territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands. These Islands are located between Japan, the People's Republic of China, and Taiwan. The archipelago includes five islands and three bare rocks. The largest of them is 4.32 square kilometers. As for the public handling of the dispute, Japan is trying to not open any space for negotiations with China. The Ministry of foreign affairs of Japan dismisses China's claim over the disputed islands and sharply states:
There is no doubt that the Senkaku Islands are an inherent part of the territory of Japan, in light of historical facts and based upon international law. Indeed, the Senkaku Islands are under the valid control of Japan. There exists no issue of territorial sovereignty to be resolved concerning the Senkaku Islands (MoFA 2016). Although officially the islands belong to Japan, they are also open to Chinese and Taiwanese fishermen. However, the cause of the conflict is not fishing at all. In 1969 China and Taiwan claimed the islands for the first time when oil and gas reserves were discovered in the vicinity of the islands. But, some sources doubt this as a good reason for the countries interest in the islands, since it is firstly not clearly proven that there is plenty of gas and oil there, and secondly, no one yet possesses the technology to reach and exploit the oil and gas fields (Cf. Hall 2019: 17-18). Even if technology were to be developed in the future to work underwater, the process would probably be very costly and the economic benefits would be small. The main reason for the conflict has to be China's military interest. China sees itself surrounded by the United States and its allies. Looking at China's strategic position in the world, we can see that China has no clear access to the Pacific as there are Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Malaysia in front. So China wishes to replace the U.S. dominance in the Indo-Pacific Region and secure its entrance into the Pacific. For this purpose, the Senkaku Islands are strategically very advantageous, as they can be a gateway to the Pacific Ocean. (Cf. Mauricio 2013: 94; Cooper, Shearer 2017: 305). But can China legitimately claim the islands at all? The dispute over the Islands is not new, and confusion over rightful ownership comes from the Treaty of Shimonoseki 1895. China accuses Japan of stealing the Senkaku islands during the Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895). But, before the outburst of the Sino-Japanese War, the Senkaku were terra nullius and Japan integrated the Senkaku into its territory according to international law. When the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed in 1895, which ended the Sino-Japanese War, China ceded Taiwan and other Islands to Japan, but the Senkaku Islands were never mentioned in the Treaty [quelle]. After Japan's defeat in World War II, the Treaty of San Francisco was signed in 1951. According to that Treaty, Japan was refusing sovereignty over Taiwan, Okinawa, and other islands. Some of the islands were planned to come under the trusteeship of the UN, but 20 years later, in 1971 the Okinawa Reversion Treaty passed the U.S. Senate, returning Okinawa including the Senkaku Islands to Japanese control in 1972 (Cf. MoFA 2016). This event has upset both the People's Republic of China and Taiwan. Yet Sino-Japanese diplomatic Relations were about to normalize around the 1970s. Both sides even signed a Peace Treaty in 1978, but the Treaty did not touch the matter over the Senkaku Islands. In the negotiations for the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between China and Japan, Vice Premier Xiaoping said that the resolution of the dispute should be postponed to a future generation (Cf. MoFA 2013: 9).
In the following years, Sino-Japanese relations were stable and quite good. China was dependent on Japan's Official Development Assistance (ODA) and Japan has also benefited from it (Cf. Dreyer 2001: 373). With the conclusion of the treaty, China made no further mentions of its claims to the islands. In 2010 China became the world's second- biggest economy, replacing Japan. That year, the dispute flared up again, when a Chinese fishing boat entered Japanese territorial waters and rammed the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) Vessel after the Coast guard officers commanded the captain to stop the boat for a check-up. The JCG then arrested the Chinese Captain. Angered China showed its stern side, demanded the immediate release of its citizen, breaking off all diplomatic relations with Japan. The warnings coming from Beijing were serious. Premier Wen Jiabao found the following words: "If Japan continues to ignore the situation, China will be left with no option but to take the necessary forceful action" (Sunohara 2020: 23). After a short time, Japan relented and released the captain, thus the media started portraying Japan as weak and pliant, while China emerged as the winner from the incident (Cf. Hagström 2012: 276280). This incident increased the awareness of the Japanese People towards the Senkaku Islands. Many became interested in the conflict and wanted the government to protect their Islands. In this atmosphere, the rightwing governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who is pretty popular in Tokyo, announced that he wanted to buy the Islands to develop them and build a harbor/ helicopter board to manifest the Senkaku as Japanese territory. The Senkaku Islands belonged to a private, Japanese owner, who ran a small fishery. The Japanese government, which probably wanted to prevent a further escalation of the conflict, came first, bought the islands, and nationalized them (Cf. Fox 2016: 318). Nevertheless, an escalation was not prevented. China expressed anger and threatened to impose its claims. Many anti-Japanese demonstrations took place during this period and diplomatic relations between the two countries continued worsening. These events have caused a chain reaction where both countries seem to try to make an appropriate step to counter another. In the next section, I will first examine China's strategy and implementation to gain sovereignty over the Senkaku's.
3. China's Strategy
To understand Japan's response to China's threat to the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, it is helpful to know China's strategy regarding the islands. In the scientific literature the concept of “maritime grey zone operations” has emerged to describe China's actions in the East and South China Seas. Gray zone operations are actions carried out by states that wish to change the status quo in their favor but are not eager to engage in war for this purpose. As Mazarr (2015: 2) describes:
[States that proceed in this manner] maneuver in the ambiguous no-man's-land between peace and war, reflecting the sort of aggressive, persistent, determined campaigns characteristic of warfare but without the overt use of military force.
After the 2010 “fishing boat” incident, China began its grey zone operations by sending Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels to enter and linger in waters near the Senkaku's (Cf. Liff 2019 a: 212). Following the nationalization of the islands by the Japanese government, China began dispatching CCG vessels to Japanese territorial waters (Cf. ibid.), and in 2013 the Chinese Ministry of Defense announced the establishment of their Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) which overlaps with the existing ADIZ of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. The ADIZ extends 100 miles beyond the 12-nautical-mile-zone, but it is not part of the sovereign territory of a state. Its original idea is national security, essentially allowing nations to protect themselves from approaching danger. Foreign aircrafts flying through a country's ADIZ must identify themselves and state their flight plan. China's ADIZ includes the entire zone over the Senkaku Islands. The overlapping region has created a new environment in which Japanese and Chinese fighter jets interact daily. This has added to the already, tense atmosphere in the sea by creating an uncertain situation in the air (Green et al. 2017: 155-157). In 2015, the JCG reported seeing an armed CCG vessel near the Senkaku's for the first time (Cf. Reuters 2015). In 2016, 230 Chinese fishing boats followed by 6 CCG vessels entered Japan's territorial waters (Cf. Liff 2019 b: 5). Again, the JCG reported that the CCG vessels were armed (Cf. The Japan Times 2016). Through these actions, China showed that it is ready and willing to impose its claims, not through war, but through gray-zone operations that challenge Japan's sovereignty and reveal that Japan does not have much choice of appropriate responses to Chinese provocations. The reason is Japan's constitution forbids the JCG and the Self Defense Forces (SDF) to respond with military force to non-military aggression by other states and China seems to be taking advantage of exactly this. But since 2012 CCG and fishing vessels entering Japanese territorial waters have increased. In addition, CCG vessels have gotten much bigger, much more modernized, and in some cases even militarized (Liff 2019 a:213). China has had the largest coast guard vessel in the world since 2015, replacing Japan. The CCG 3901 vessel weighs 10,000 tons, compared to Japan's largest coast guard vessel, which weighs 6,500 tons. It is equipped with naval guns, anti-aircraft guns and can carry two helicopters and several boats (Cf. Jalopnik 2015). This indicates that the CCG could defeat the JCG in the case of an escalation of the conflict. In 2014, China completed a military base with a docking pier for large vessels and airstrips on Nanji Island, Zhejiang province. China's new base is located 100 km closer to the Senkaku's than the Japanese and U.S. military base on Okinawa. The fact, that at that time, in the event of a military conflict, China would reach the Senkaku's more quickly to support its vessels than Japan, must have been a calculated and provocative step against Japan, which observed this with concern (Cf. The Japan Times 2014). Another reason for concern was as Liff (2019 b: 5) explains “the deepening ties between CCG and China's military, which were clear indications that one of CCG's roles is as a paramilitary force tasked with asserting China's maritime rights and interests, including territorial claims.” On the first of January 2018, China's government announced that the CCG would no longer come under civilian control, but under the control of the People's Armed Police (Cf. Granados 2020: 41). The new Maritime Police Law, which has been in force since February 2021 mandates CCG to protect waters and islands, which China claims and allows them to shoot at enemy vessels if necessary. In the new law, the CCG is described as a maritime armed force with the right to enforce measures against foreign government vessels (Cf. Pedrozo 2021: 470). This new law is supporting to Liff's (2019 b: 5) view that the CCG is a paramilitary organization prepared to break the status quo. The new law is again a signal that China is sending because it violates the already intact United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS allows countries to enforce their rules for 12 nautical miles into the sea, while still allowing free navigation of foreign vessels. China's new law violates this and shows that it is not obeying international laws that are not in its favor. In addition, the new law fits well with China's strategy of gray zone operations. China's constant presence in Japan's waters is already routine, but now China is trying to make its presence there legal (Cf. CNN 2021). Since January 2020, CCG vessels have been sighted in the waters around the Senkaku Islands for more than 100 days in a row. This is the longest period since 2012 and shows that China is not backing down over time, but rather becoming more determined (war on the rocks 2020). Lastly, it is important to talk about China's military spending and capabilities. For several years, China's military budget has been increasing and largely exceeds Japan's budget (Cf. Trading Economics 2021; Gronning 2014: 13). It is worrying to observe a country significantly and constantly increasing its military spending, as we can never know the true intentions behind it. But China's expansion of its A2/AD zone suggests, that it's trying to exclude the U.S. as much as possible so that it cannot help its allies in case of a military conflict. As the A2/AD is the ability to hinder the access or freedom of movement of enemy forces in the air, on land, and at sea in an operational area by military means. China's A2/AD zone extends into Japanese territory and could prevent the U.S.-Military from gaining access to support Japan in the event of an escalation of the Sino-Japanese conflict (Cf. Gronning 2014: 13).