PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – Some 57 hours and 39 minutes: That was the amount of time that two Chinese Coast Guard vessels spent in Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands earlier this week. The vessels entered to engage a Japanese fishing boat and remained after the Japanese Coast Guard attempted to intervene. It is the longest stretch of time that Chinese Coast Guard vessels have stayed in the territorial waters around the Senkakus, sparking protest from Tokyo.
While this may seem like a minor event in the grand scheme of international conflict, the incident represents two critical things: The first is advancement towards the next step in China’s Senkaku Islands strategy and the second is a test of the newly-minted Yoshihide Suga administration.
In a Japan Times article published nearly a year and a half ago, I described China’s years-long strategic ambition for the Senkaku Islands. Simply put, the Chinese goal is 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. To accomplish this, China does not need to exercise military power to gain control of the islands it calls Diaoyu, it simply needs to establish a condition where the international community gets so used to a Chinese presence that it is no longer seen as a challenge to the status quo.
The first step for China was to normalize its presence in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands, which it has done. Chinese Coast Guard and fishing vessels have been mainstays in the exclusive economic zone (44 to 370 km from land) since 2012, and they have increasingly encroached upon the islands this past year. From April to August 2020, the Chinese Coast Guard set a record with 111 consecutive days of presence in the contiguous zone (22 to 44 km from land) with frequent incursions into territorial waters (up to 22 km from land).
As mentioned in my previous article, the next step in implementation of China’s strategy is to go beyond mere presence operations and to start pushing the boundaries of what it does around the Senkakus. I specifically noted that one such action may be for Chinese Coast Guard vessels to start harassing Japanese fishing boats that are operating in the area.
What happened this week represents a first push into that next step of the strategy, as indicated in two key elements from the incident. First is the attempt to exercise some level of authority over foreign ships, which happened when Chinese Coast Guard vessels attempted to engage a Japanese fishing boat in the territorial waters around the Senkakus. Second is the denial of Japanese authority, which the Chinese Coast Guard vessels demonstrated by refusing to vacate the area when ordered to do so.
This incident represents the first major diplomatic and security test for Prime Minister Suga since he took office last month. Will he opt for personal engagement with Xi Jinping? Will he step up Self Defense Force or Coast Guard presence in the East China Sea? Will he break from precedent and adopt a new policy for the Senkakus? How Suga responds now will establish a baseline for what the Chinese government can expect when it challenges his administration in the future.
A fair question here is whether the Chinese government is actually testing Suga or if this most recent incident is simply a continuation of China’s long-standing policy that was going to happen anyway.
The simple answer is that it is both. Of course, given China’s strategy, the next step was going to come at some point or another. However, the timing of it is less than coincidental; after all, on Sept. 25, Suga and Xi held about a half hour phone call where the Japanese prime minister expressed concern to the Chinese president over the situation in the East China Sea. A week later, the Chinese government proceeded to launch a digital museum on its sovereignty over the “Diaoyu Islands,” and two weeks after that, we have this latest event where Chinese Coast Guard vessels attempted to engage a Japanese fishing boat and refused to leave when confronted by Japanese authorities.
It is not uncommon for competitors to test new leaders early on in their administrations. This incident represents a low risk way for the Xi administration to see how Suga may respond. It also allows China to test the waters on advancing its strategic ambitions while a new leader in Japan is still finding his feet.
In fairness, China probably views Suga’s recent actions as a test, too. The Xi administration could look at the Sept. 25 phone call as untoward; they may have preferred to leave it at cordial introductions, but Suga brought forward heavy issues including the East China Sea dispute and concerns over conditions in Hong Kong. Then, the Suga administration followed up two weeks later by hosting a meeting of the “Quad” (Australia, India, Japan and the United States) that was focused on Chinese activities. As such, the Chinese government may feel their own test against Japan is justified.
Whatever the justification, the incident gives Xi a power play against Suga. If Suga proactively engages Xi through diplomacy and demands that the Chinese Coast Guard back off, Xi can claim that he is offering a concession to Japan and demand reciprocity. If Suga uses SDF assets to bolster security around the Senkakus, Xi can argue that Japan is unilaterally escalating the situation by introducing military assets into the area. If Suga is overly cautious or outright passive in his response, Xi can take it as an invitation to advance his Senkaku Islands strategy further.
It is a tough spot for Suga, and his best answer will be to avoid picking from the options that Xi might expect. The only way to best an opponent’s strategy is to disrupt it by introducing unanticipated conditions and responses. If Suga wants to succeed in this test, he will have to do something out of the ordinary and already be thinking three moves ahead.
Can a prime minister with little foreign policy and security experience manage that? No one can really know until the situation plays out, which makes this an important feeling out period for Suga and Xi. Suga may think he knows China after eight years as Shinzo Abe’s chief Cabinet secretary. But the situation has changed dramatically now that he is responsible for deciding how to employ his national instruments of power and carrying out summit-level diplomacy. Meanwhile, Xi will have little idea of where Suga fits on the spectrum of China policy; something that is hard enough for the most seasoned scholars of Japanese politics to discern.
And so here we are: an incident in the Senkakus this week will establish a new baseline for Sino-Japanese relations. Neither side knows how the other will yet respond, though Xi currently has the upper hand in the situation given that it’s just another move in China’s long-held strategy. Meanwhile, Suga’s response to this Senkaku Islands test tells China much about what they can expect from the new Japanese prime minister moving forward.
Dr. Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.