The COVID-19 pandemic has made us spectator of many different things, and one of them is the People’s Republic of China’s already assertive foreign policy now on steroids, it can be attributed to the small-time frame (it can expand its interests) that pandemic provides. As reported in Yomiuri Shimbun on 24th June the then Japanese Defense Minister Kono Taro said that a submarine presumed to belong to China sailed around a Japanese Island amid rising tensions over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The seriousness of this news can be gauged by the fact that officials rarely disclose the nationality of the detected submarines. Although the Islands have been contested, it has been claimed by Japan since 1895 and has been owned privately by a series of Japanese citizens for the past 120 years (Council on Foreign Affairs n.d.).
Chinese reassertion of claims for Senkaku Islands started in the 70s citing historic ties going back to the Qing dynasties and it being part of then Taiwan. A similar tactic that it has used against all its neighbours to claim territories and keep the burner of border disputes hot. The stakes are quite high as both Tokyo and Beijing eye for the economic rich region of the East China Sea which is North West of Taiwan and has potential oil & natural gas reserves. There are many rich fishing areas as well to top it off, the economic and strategic importance of the Islands is too great for both China & Japan to give it up or be reasonable.
The problem lies in the definition of the EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones) and the inability of practically applying them in the Sea. Both of the countries claim to have economic rights in the EEZs of two hundred nautical miles from their coastline, but the sea separating China and Japan only spans three hundred and sixty nautical miles. The governments remain fixed to the definition as per the International Law, but it’s not like that nature will bend for their interests.
The then Chief Cabinet Secretary and now the Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga, on 17th June said “The Senkaku Islands are under our control and are unquestionably our territory historically and under international law. It is extremely serious that these activities continue. We will respond to the Chinese side firmly and calmly” and it has been recently followed by the statement by the erstwhile defence minister stating” Japan will defend every inch of its territory at any cost” during the US-Japan summit. I have strategically stated these two remarks so that we can put an end to all the speculations about the new cabinet going soft on their Chinese counterparts on this issue.
The Chinese Foreign Minister made clear the Chinese standpoint as well “The Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands are an inherent part of China’s territory, and it is our inherent right to carry out patrols and law enforcement activities in these waters.” The Chinese mouthpiece blamed Japanese conservatives for disrupting any furthering of recovering the ties among the two East Asian powerhouses.
The Chinese have increased their activity in and around the region since the coming of Xi Jinping to power, as China took a step towards being more assertive and outgoing power. The activity has been at a high end of the spectrum since then, yet the current atmosphere and the renewed adventurism by China through submarines, ships, fighter jets and other regular means has gathered a lot of criticism and bad PR for Beijing.
Both the countries are treading a narrow line, on one hand, China wants to continue its activities to a level that Japan finds it easier to deal with it bilaterally rather than taking China to the International Court of Justice, on the other hand, Japan wants to maintain its sovereign rights of the Islands (as declared in 2012) but it can just not escalate the matter to a level so that Tokyo’s economic interests are not compromised. Both countries have a level of complex interdependence, add this to the proximity and the capabilities each possess, both want to get the largest slice of the East China Sea cake without agitating the other party beyond reconciliation.
The possibility of the tectonic plates moving faster just to increase the span by another 40 nautical miles is gargantuanly small (because the existence of these nations cannot be confirmed for so long). Jokes apart, the problem does not seem to have any solution in sight and it can only be stalled for as long as the power differential is not large enough.
The increasing nationalism and growing political mistrust coupled with an overly aggressive China can heighten the potential of conflict and hinder the capacity of peaceful resolution of the dispute. The treaty of Japan with the USA will make Washington bound to enter the conflict, and the already tattered relations with China make it much of a possibility. The QUAD foreign Ministers are going to meet in Tokyo next month, October, making the situation more serious.
Any miscalculated and sorry step from forces in the sea can lead to an escalation which may not have been wanted by any of the parties. The Japanese proactive foreign policy by means of multiple treaties and Memorandum of Understandings with Australia, India, ASEAN, USA, and other like-minded countries can bring a diplomatic weightage so that China may be deterred from any further adventurous escalatory measures, thus passing the baton to future generations or nature to solve the dispute.