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What’s Behind China’s Dangerous Incursion into the East China Sea
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What’s Behind China’s Dangerous Incursion into the East China Sea

Japan has long controlled the Senkaku Islands, but the CCP is trying aggressively to stake a claim.

On Thursday, Biden administration officials traveled to Alaska to conduct their first face-to-face meeting with representatives from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Biden team has inherited multiple national security challenges, just as Obama bequeathed a messy world to Trump, Bush to Obama, and so on. But no issue is more pressing than the rivalry between America and the CCP. The world’s two largest economies are at loggerheads in many ways. The U.S. has objected to the CCP’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, its crackdown on speech in Hong Kong, its menacing rhetoric toward Taiwan and generally aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, among other military and economic issues. 

Here’s one topic that you may not have heard as much about: The CCP has been asserting itself in the East China Sea as well, threatening Japanese-controlled territory and waters for much of the past decade. 

On Wednesday (March 16), the day before the sit-down in Alaska, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with their Japanese counterparts in Tokyo. The U.S. “reaffirmed” its commitment to Japan’s security. 

Shortly after the meeting, the State Department released a statement that was aimed squarely at Beijing. “The United States and Japan acknowledged that China’s behavior, where inconsistent with the existing international order, presents political, economic, military, and technological challenges to the Alliance and to the international community,” the statement reads. The two allies pledged to maintain the “rules-based international system” against any nation—namely, China—inclined to employ “coercion and destabilizing behavior toward others in the region.”

Key parts of the statement were focused on Japanese security in the East China Sea. Importantly, the U.S. reiterated its “unwavering commitment to the defense of Japan under Article V of our security treaty, which includes the Senkaku Islands.” The U.S. and Japan “remain opposed to any unilateral action that seeks to change the status quo or to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.” 

The U.S. commitment to defend Japan, including the Senkaku Islands, is not new. For instance, President Barack Obama stated in 2014 that the security pact forged between the two nations in the aftermath of World War II covered the islands. But the restatement of America’s security guarantee is still noteworthy, given the CCP’s desire to claim the Senkaku Islands for itself. 

It’s Beijing that wants to change the “status quo.” The history is a bit messy, but Japan has basically controlled the Senkaku Islands most of the time since the late 19th century. Japan annexed the chain in 1895, following a war with the Chinese, though some of the islands were privately owned by Japanese citizens. Japan relinquished control to the U.S. at the conclusion of World War II. The U.S. then recognized Japan’s control over the islands, as well as the nearby island of Okinawa, in the early 1970s. They’ve been administered under the security arrangements established by the U.S. and Japan ever since, with the Japanese government purchasing several of the islands that had been privately owned. However, the CCP isn’t giving in to this historical reality. Though small and largely uninhabited, the island chain may be sitting over oil reserves, which are particularly important for Japan and China, both of which import fossil fuels. Fishing in the waters is profitable. And the islands form several sea lanes that connect the East China Sea to other waterways. So, naturally, the CCP wants the islands for itself. China and Japan have tried to mediate their disputes in the past, but there are growing indications that the CCP won’t be easy to mollify.

China’s increasingly worrisome marine incursions are discussed at length in a white paper published by Japan’s Ministry of Defense in 2020. The Japanese military outlined the CCP’s alarming maneuvers in the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands. An image from that white paper is reproduced below. It depicts various moves made by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) throughout the Japanese archipelago. As depicted on the map, the Senkaku Islands are just east of China, not far from Taiwan. 

The Japanese Defense Ministry’s white paper outlines the ways in which Beijing has been attempting to assert itself in the Senkaku Islands.

For example, the Chinese government attempted to assert a level of control over the islands in November 2013, when it established its “East China Sea ADIZ” (Air Defense Identification Zone). At the time, the Chinese “misleadingly” labeled the Senkaku Islands “as if they were China’s territory.” This is important because China “requires aircraft flying” in the “East China Sea ADIZ” to “abide by rules set by its Ministry of National Defense and claims to take military ‘defensive emergency measures’ against aircraft failing to do so, unduly infringing on the principle of freedom of overflight.” The Japanese weren’t the only ones to express alarm at this move: so did the U.S., the Republic of Korea, Australia, and the European Union. The Chinese were, in effect, flirting with a claim of territorial sovereignty over the islands.

The Chinese military has made a series of provocative moves in the years since. 

In June 2016, according to the Japanese white paper, a Chinese “frigate” (warship) “became the first ever Chinese Navy combatant vessel to enter Japan’s contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands.” In August 2016, “approximately 200 to 300 Chinese fishing boats advanced to the contiguous zone of the Senkaku Islands.”

Less than two years later, in January 2018, a “submerged submarine” and a “frigate passed into the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands on the same day.” This was the “first time a submerged Chinese submarine was identified and announced as transiting through the contiguous waters off the Senkaku Islands.” In addition, “Chinese Navy intelligence gathering vessels” have repeatedly been spotted near the Senkaku Islands, as well as in or near other Japanese territorial waters.

The PLA’s Navy has become more aggressive in the waters over time, sending Chinese vessels into the zone around the Senkaku Islands “almost every day” in 2019 and 2020. Chinese ships have even cruised around the islands for more than a day at time, sometimes harassing Japanese fishing boats. The reality is that China is sending more, larger, and better equipped ships through the waterways and it is doing so more frequently.

And it isn’t just Chinese warships. According to Japan’s Ministry of Defense, military aircraft have been “operating in airspace close to the Senkaku Islands in recent years.” Drones have been spotted flying over Chinese government vessels, too. Japan says this violates its airspace. 

Why would Beijing do all this? From the Japanese perspective, the answer is simple. China “relentlessly” continues in its “attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by coercion in the sea area around the Senkaku Islands.” The Chinese military hopes that its incursions become so “routine,” that eventually they are accepted as the new norm. China’s “unilateral claim on the Senkaku Islands” has led to a “one-sided escalation of activities, creating a situation of great concern to Japan.”

It is in this context—as set forth in Japanese white paper—that the State Department reaffirmed America’s commitment to the “status quo” in and around the Senkaku Islands. It’s likely that many Americans would gloss over that language, not knowing just how significant it is. But its importance wasn’t lost on the Japanese, and it brought a harsh condemnation from China’s foreign ministry. 

During a press conference on Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian blasted the statement jointly published by the U.S. and Japan. Zhao claimed the statement “maliciously attacks China’s foreign policy, flagrantly interferes in China’s domestic affairs, and attempts to harm China’s interests.” Zhao accused Japan of “acting as a strategic vassal of the United States, going so far as to break faith, harm relations with China, invite the wolf into the house, and betray the collective interests of the whole region.” Japan’s “despicable behavior is deeply unpopular.”

Tellingly, Zhao treated the dispute over the Senkaku Islands as an issue of China’s “national sovereignty”—just like all of the other hot button issues dominating the press coverage these days.

“China’s position on issues relating to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea and the Diaoyu Island is consistent and clear,” Zhao said. (Diaoyu is the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands.) “Our resolution and will to defend national sovereignty, security and development interests is rock solid,” he added. 

In no uncertain terms, Zhao claimed that “China’s sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, the Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands is indisputable.”

In other words, the CCP isn’t backing down from its claim over the Senkaku Islands anytime soon.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.