Commentary / Japan

China's Senkaku Islands ambition

by Michael Macarthur Bosack

Monday marked the 60th consecutive day that China Coast Guard vessels have operated within 24 nautical miles (nm) of the Senkaku Islands. This is the longest stretch of continuous Chinese activity in those waters since Japan started tracking it. For some, this record-setting run may seem out of the ordinary, but for longtime observers of this problem area, the increasingly constant presence of Chinese government vessels simply reflects the country’s ambition to establish a “new normal” in the East China Sea.

The recent Chinese activity around the Senkaku Islands represents the continuation of a plan it has held for the better part of a decade: to establish a situation of de facto co-administration of the Senkakus as a stepping stone to vying for sole administration at some point in the future. With this plan, China has no need to exercise military power in order to achieve its ultimate goal of gaining control of the islands it calls Diaoyu — it merely needs to create a situation where the international community gets so used to Chinese presence that it is no longer seen as a challenge to the status quo.

But why is China targeting the Senkakus in the first place? The Senkaku Islands are a small group of uninhabited land features along Japan’s southwest island chain and are the focus of a territorial dispute between three countries: Japan, China and Taiwan. The Senkakus have been under Japanese administration since the U.S. reversion of the Ryukyu Islands in 1972, but since then, China and Taiwan have both laid sovereignty claims to those islets.

While Japan has settled fishing agreements with Taiwan for activity surrounding the Senkakus, China has instead elected to dedicate resources toward backing its sovereignty claims. Chinese coast guard, fishing, and naval vessels have operated in the vicinity of the islands for years, especially following the Japanese government’s purchase of the Senkakus from private Japanese landowners in 2012.

Although uninhabited, the Senkakus are important for a few reasons. The islands themselves may not hold much value, but the waters surrounding them are strategically significant in terms of sea lane control given their location and the amount of maritime traffic in the area. They also present notable economic value in fishing resources and untapped hydrocarbon energy reserves. Less important but still relevant is the position the islands hold in domestic politics — each country has claimed sovereignty, policies that are now politically impossible to relinquish.

The rhetorical battle over sovereignty began in the early 1970s, but the 2010s have witnessed a shift in Chinese approach. The current strategy for China is simple. Rather than take the islands by force and invite an international military response, China slowly and consistently increases its activity in the area until it can establish de facto co-administration, then sole administration.

To achieve those ends, the Chinese have made their presence in the vicinity of the Senkakus routine. The Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that the Chinese government declared in 2013 incorporates the Senkaku Islands, and China routinely operates its military aircraft through that self-designated zone. The Chinese have set up oil and gas platforms right along the edge of the median line separating Japanese- and Chinese-administered waters in the East China Sea, and civilian vessels regularly conduct illegal fishing in the waters around the Senkakus.

Along with intermittent fishing activity is the Chinese coast guard presence near the Senkaku islands, something that we are now witnessing with greater consistency as China proceeds with its strategy. They have now logged over 60 consecutive days of presence in contiguous waters (12-24 nm from land) and 17 incursions into Japanese territorial waters (up to 12 nm from land) this year. All the while, the Chinese tend to have naval assets loitering beyond the 24 nm mark, postured to respond in case there happens to be any escalation involving Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Some observers are concerned that China will eventually take military action to seize the Senkakus, worrying that countries will be dragged into a great power war over uninhabited rocks in the middle of the ocean, but this ignores a few key things.

First, for China, there is no rush. Its energy situation is not so dire that it urgently needs to tap into whatever resources may exist in the vicinity of the islands. It also does not immediately need the fishing rights—besides, the China Coast Guard’s response to illegal fishing in the area actually contributes to its argument that it co-administers the waters around the Senkakus.

Second, China is a gray zone revisionist power. For China, the measure of success is how much it can change the status quo without eliciting a strong, consolidated international response. The way it does that is by operating just beneath the level of illegality and exploiting gaps in the rules-based international order. After all, if it is not in direct violation of international legal provisions, there will always be a seam in any multinational effort to counter China’s behavior.

For China to succeed in this plan, all it takes is for government officials from the international community to say, “What’s the big deal? Let the China Coast Guard take care of Chinese vessels.” Once the presence of Chinese assets becomes so commonplace that policymakers fail to notice or care, it will have achieved its interim step of de facto co-administration.

After that, China can initiate the next step of its plan: angling for sole administration. This means that China will start pushing the boundaries on what it does in the waters and airspace around the Senkakus. Perhaps China plants an oil rig in Japanese-administered waters. Or perhaps the Chinese coast guard starts harassing Taiwanese and Japanese fishing vessels that are legally operating in the area.

Japan has responded to China’s challenge to the status quo by steadily increasing its coast guard budget and stepping up its unilateral and alliance postures for southwest island defense. Still, Japan is limited beyond those options at this point. Its best choice right now is to employ information power and disseminate the details of Chinese activity around the Senkakus so government officials foreign and domestic do not become complacent.

From there, the Japanese government will have to follow up through diplomatic efforts to ensure the international community adequately understands China’s attempts to change the status quo. That understanding will be critical should the situation escalate any further, especially in the event of a clash between Japanese and Chinese assets in the area.

That China has stepped up the consistency of its presence in the East China Sea should be no surprise. Neither should China’s true ambition related to the Senkaku Islands. Over 60 straight days of presence is just a feature of a years-long effort to establish a new normal. While there is little to be done to address this problem directly, awareness is essential for making the Chinese government think twice before initiating the next phase of its Senkaku strategy.

Based in Niigata, Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He was the deputy chief of government relations at Headquarters, U.S. Forces Japan, and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.

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