After making its first aerial incursion into Japanese airspace near the Senkakus, China compounded bilateral tensions by bolstering its territorial claim to the isles at the United Nations.
On Dec. 14, two days before the Lower House election, Beijing submitted to the world body an 11-page report citing the continental shelf’s geology to claim ownership of the uninhabited, Japan-controlled islets in the East China Sea, whose surrounding waters may contain bountiful undersea oil and natural gas fields.
“Physiognomy and geological characteristics show that the continental shelf in the East China Sea is the natural prolongation of China’s land territory,” the report said. On that basis, Beijing extends its claim to resource rights beyond the standard 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
Since Japan purchased three of the main Senkaku islets Sept. 11, sending bilateral ties into a major tailspin, China has been depositing maps and coordinates with the U.N. alongside its more visible provocations by sea and now air.
“China has repeatedly canceled and postponed discussions with Japan on this issue, which is why we have yet to set a border,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Naoko Saiki said.
Saiki said the government will examine the documents before responding. Tokyo advocates adopting the median line between the two countries as a maritime border, while Beijing claims exclusive rights to develop undersea resources as far away as the Okinawa Trough, well within what Japan regards as its own exclusive zone.
The latest actions came after the Chinese Communist Party completed its leadership change last month and on the cusp of Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party regaining power in last Sunday’s general election. Abe, the presumptive next prime minister, advocated a hard line on the sovereignty row during the campaign.
The Foreign Ministry condemned the Dec. 13 incursion by a Chinese marine surveillance propeller plane through Japan’s airspace above the Senkakus as a “further dangerous act” that “escalates the situation.” While the Self-Defense Forces dispatched eight F-15 fighter jets, China’s aircraft had already left the area by the time they arrived. China said the flight constituted normal activity in its own airspace.
“China’s intention to topple the status quo by use of coercion is clear,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement released earlier this week. “Does China want to see Japan-China relations pass the point of no return?”
Beijing’s timing is intentional, given that the new administration in Tokyo “is likely to be more hawkish than the previous (Democratic Party of Japan) government,” said Richard Gowan, associate director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. “This is a signal from the Chinese that it’s not going to back down on this issue.”
The dispute over the islets, known as Diaoyu in China, has hurt trade between Asia’s top two economies and stoked concern of an arms buildup. Ever since Japan effectively nationalized the Senkakus in mid-September, Chinese vessels have been steaming in and out of the waters surrounding them.
Abe “will be forced to put more ships and planes around those islands” once he becomes prime minister, said Jun Okumura, an adviser for the Eurasia Group. “That is a recipe for possible unintended incidents that could flare up to a major national security challenge.”
Beijing’s moves are being monitored by Western powers at the U.N. for clues as to how the emerging military superpower will exert its claims and just how far it will push the dispute. The annual U.N. General Assembly in September saw some late-night drama when China launched a caustic attack on Japan over the ownership of the barren island group.
The U.N. secretary general is the designated depositary of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and, as such, Ban Ki Moon receives charts and geographical coordinates, his spokesman’s office said.
While presenting evidence at the U.N. may appear a less aggressive move than a sea or air incursion, Tokyo’s formal position is that there is no dispute over the sovereignty of the Senkakus since they are inherently Japanese territory, so multilateral arbitration is thus unnecessary.
“Japan would consider this an unacceptable approach, so the move by the Chinese may be designed to look reasonable, but it is more disruptive than it seems,” said Gowan, who specializes in crisis diplomacy at the U.N.
Chinese vessels have entered Japanese-controlled waters around the islands 18 times since they were effectively nationalized Sept. 11 and have sailed through immediately adjacent contiguous waters almost daily, the Foreign Ministry reported.
China’s ships have been warned off by the coast guard, but under Japanese law, intrusions by aircraft require a response by the SDF, raising further potential risks.