Tensions in the East China Sea

Tensions in the East China Sea

An armed confrontation in the East China Sea between China and Japan stemming from tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

Recent Developments

Tensions between Japan and China over the contested Senkaku/Daioyu islands in the East China Sea have subsided in recent months as a result of high-level political discussions organized to prevent a dangerous escalation. However, close interactions between air and maritime forces of both countries continue.

In June 2015, the Japanese government revealed that came closer to Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by establishing natural gas projects along the border between the two countries. Chinese and Japanese naval and air patrol vessels continue to operate closely in the area, making the risk of a miscalculation that could lead to an armed confrontation a real danger. To maintain its strategic advantage, China has converted naval warships of considerable size and capability to coast guard vessels, These actions, as well as Chinese coast guards’ constant patrolling, present serious concerns for Japan. In 2015, Chinese aircrafts approached Japan’s airspace more than 570 times, causing the Japanese government to scramble in response. There has been a sharp increase in the number of jet fighter scrambles in the past year; Japan’s air force recorded a 16 percent increase in airspace incursions, which represents the second highest number of interactions since the 1980s. 


Aside from a brief period after World War II when the United States controlled the territory, the Senkaku/Daioyu islands have formally been a part of Japanese territory since 1895, although owned by a private Japanese citizen. China began to assert claims over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands in the 1970s. Tensions resurfaced in September 2012 when Japan purchased three of the disputed islands from the private owner. The economically significant islands, which are northeast of Taiwan, have potential oil and natural gas reserves, are near prominent shipping routes, and are surrounded by rich fishing areas. 

Each country claims to have economic rights in an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of two hundred nautical miles, but that space overlaps because the sea only spans three hundred and sixty nautical miles. After China discovered natural gas near the overlapping EEZ-claimed area in 1995, Japan objected to any drilling in the area due to the fact that the oil reserve could be connected to a field that spans into the disputed zone

In April 2014, President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to explicitly state that the disputed islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, although the United States takes no formal position on their ultimate sovereignty. An accidental military incident or political miscalculation by China or Japan could embroil the United States in armed hostilities with China.

Discussions between Japan and China to develop a crisis management mechanism tool began in 2012. Talks stalled when tensions peaked in 2013 after China declared the establishment of an air defense identification zone. After Japan and China signed a four-point consensus document laying out their differences concerning the disputed islands last fall, bilateral discussions resumed in fall 2014, bilateral discussions resumed in early 2015, aiming to implment the maritime and aerial communication mechanism.


Rising nationalist sentiments and growing political mistrust heighten the potential for conflict and hinders the capacity for peaceful resolution of the dispute. Though Chinese and Japanese leaders have refrained from forcibly establishing control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, unauthorized action by local commanders could result in the unintended escalation of hostilities. Through treaty commitments with Japan, a military confrontation could involve the United States. To preserve relations with China and continue cooperation on various issues, the United States has an interest in de-escalating tensions. 

Background Information
Breaking News
Primary Sources
Latest CFR Analysis
Related CFR Experts