It seems that both Japan and China agreed to maintain channels of communication for crisis management and for the management of differences and disagreements, but China’s actions to try to unilaterally alter the status quo by force is continuing in the East China Sea. For example, China Coast Guard (CCG) ships operated in the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands for 336 days in 2022.
The Senkaku Islands are islets in the East China Sea and at the western edge of the Southwest Islands chain, which stretches from the southern part of Kyushu Island of Japan to the direction of Taiwan. The Senkakus are uninhabited now, but there were around 200 Japanese residents there at maximum in the past. Japan occupies these islands as state land.
China has been claiming those islands only since the 1970s when the possibility of oil reserves in the East China Sea began to be pointed out. In 1992, China established the territorial sea law, which specified those islands as Chinese territory. China has been sending public vessels since 2008, and often intruding into the Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus. In this regard, China is trying to alter the status quo by force.
The Strategic Value of the Southwest Islands Chain
The Southwest Islands chain is important from a variety of perspectives. First, it is located in a position to thwart China’s maritime expansion toward the Pacific Ocean. This means that the area is important also to the US and Japan in order to check China’s expansion. It is, therefore, the front line of the great power rivalry. Second, sea lanes from the Strait of Malacca to Japan via the Bashi Channel run through the sea space just in the east of the islands chain, and the region is critically important for Japan’s survival and prosperity. Third, as a large number of underwater cables are laid down in the area, regional instability would affect the electronic connectivity of the entire region with the rest of the world.
Furthermore, the Southwest Islands chain is located in the vicinity of Taiwan. The Senkakus are only 170km in the east of Taiwan, and closer to Taiwan than to the main island of Okinawa. China claims that the Senkakus belong to Taiwan and that Taiwan is part of China. The strategic values and sovereignty issue overlap over the Senkaku Islands, and it makes the Japan-China relations complicated.
Recent developments in Japan-China relations
The year 2023 marked the 45th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China. Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and China’s President Xi Jinping reaffirmed to promote a “Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests” in their summit meeting in November 2023. Based on the common recognition of the importance of the strategic relationship, the two leaders agreed to promote bilateral cooperation in a variety of areas.
However, none of these issues of concern have been settled yet. Kishida expressed his serious concerns to Beijing regarding the situation in the East China Sea, including the situation caused by China’s show of force for more than a decade surrounding the Senkaku Islands, and called for the immediate removal of the oceanographic buoy found in July 2023 in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the vicinity of the islands. China is believed to be using such buoys to collect data for the CCG operations amid its efforts to control the waters around the Senkaku Islands. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea prohibits such act without the authorization of the country to which the EEX belongs. However, Xi Jinping did not make any positive response to these issues.
Taiwan is another thorny issue between the two countries. Kishida has stressed that peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is extremely important for Japan and the international community. Xi Jinping’s specific response is not disclosed yet, but he had said to US President Joe Biden in their summit meeting the day before the Kishida-Xi meeting, that “China will realize reunification, and this is unstoppable.” China never denies the possibility of use of force on Taiwan. Because of the geographical proximity between the Southwest Islands chain and Taiwan, the Taiwan question is directly linked to the national security of Japan.
It seems that both Japan and China agreed to maintain channels of communication for crisis management and for the management of differences and disagreements, but China’s actions to try to unilaterally alter the status quo by force is continuing in the East China Sea. For example, China Coast Guard (CCG) ships operated in the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands for 336 days in 2022.* It was a record high number. In 2023, the number of the days surpassed it on December 14. While days when CCG ships intruded into the Japanese territorial waters surrounding the Senkakus in 2021 and 2022 were 39 and 37 respectively, the number in 2023 was 42.
A to-do list for Japan
In order to retain its sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, Japan must not slacken its efforts for the peace and stability of the East China Sea. Of particular importance are the following measures:
First, the enhancement of crisis management mechanism is crucial. The launch of the operational use of the hotline under the Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism between Japan and China is a positive development, but this mechanism is just between the two militaries. In order to better manage gray-zone situations, both countries should work out a larger and more inclusive mechanism for crisis management. Second, Japan Coast Guard (JCG) must be strengthened. As CCG is rapidly strengthening its capability, JCG must catch up with CCG in order to avoid any escalation of tensions.
Third, cooperation between JCG and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces must be reinforced. A whole-of-government approach, particularly cooperation of these organizations of power is critically important for a seamless response to gray-zone situations, which may easily become pitch black situations. Fourth, keeping robust US military presence in the region is of utmost importance. CCG is more assertive in the South China Sea than in the East China Sea partly because there is no permanent presence of the US military in Southeast Asia. It is critically important to keep robust US military presence in Northeast Asia so that the regional balance of power is maintained. Japan must keep providing dependable stationing environment for the US military.
And finally, international cooperation with regional partners, particularly ASEAN countries and the Quad partners require more focus. China’s maritime expansion to the East and South China Seas and the Indian Ocean should be addressed holistically. Relevant regional countries should muster their efforts. The Quad’s collaboration with ASEAN is important in this context, too.
*Based on author's own calculations using the monthly statistical data released by JCG.
Professor Hideshi Tokuchi entered the Japan Defense Agency in 1979 as a civilian and assumed the position of the first Vice-Minister of Defense for International Affairs in 2014 until retiring from the Ministry of Defense in 2015. Mr. Tokuchi also worked for the US National Defense University in 1995-1996 as a Visiting Fellow. He taught Japan’s national security policy at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) for many years. He now works as a Senior Fellow for GRIPS Alliance and as a Visiting Fellow for the Institute of International Relations, Sophia University and as a Senior Research Adviserfor for the Institute for International Policy Studies. Mr. Tokuchi was born in 1955. He earned a degree of Bachelor of Laws at the University of Tokyo in 1979 and a degree of Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1986.
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