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 to prevent a dangerous escalation. However, close interactions between air and maritime forces of both countries continue.

In June 2015, China came increasingly close 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. Since April 2015, Chinese aircrafts have crossed into Japan’s airspace more than two hundred times, causing the Japanese government to scramble. 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.

Background

Formally part of Japanese territory since 1895, aside from a brief period as part of the Treaty of San Francisco, China began to assert claims over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands in the 1970s. 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 tool, known as a bilateral consultative mechanism, began in 2012. Talks stalled when tensions peaked in 2013 after China declared the establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ). After Japan and China signed a four-point consensus document laying out their differences concerning the disputed islands last fall, bilateral discussions resumed in early 2015.

Concerns

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. 

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