China and Japan Embroiled in East China Sea Dispute: Risk of Clash Boosted?

A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force P-3C Orion surveillance plane flying over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea on 13 October 2011 | Image: NewsOK

The territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea is heating up.

The latest escalation in the long-running dispute started in January 2016, when China dispatched two coastguard ships to patrol the Diaoyu islands, asserting its sovereignty claims despite the Japanese warning that it would use military vessels to combat China’s actions. In a string of incidents, China recently has further upped the ante by deploying a Chinese navy ship – the first ever Chinese military vessel in the contiguous zone of Japan’s administered waters in the East China Sea. This string of incidents has complicated the chronic territorial issue between China and Japan, thereby making the management of the crisis highly problematic.

Raising tensions still further, Japan in its counter response to Chinese actions has switched on a radar station in the East China Sea, giving it a permanent intelligence-gathering post close to Taiwan and the disputed islands. In addition, Japan has also increased its fleet presence in the disputed waters. Here, it is also worth noting that Japan’s activities in the East China Sea are a result of its changing security policy in becoming a ‘normal’ country.  Despite its umbrella protection under the US-Japan Defence Treaty, Japan still faces risks from an assertive China, a nuclear North Korea, and the growing terror of ISIS, calling for a revision in Japan’s pacifist posture. On March 29, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe passed a new military law to challenge China’s unilateral territory reclamation activities in the East China Sea. The sea has been historically compounded by heightened tensions due to US freedom of navigation exercises as well.

These recent events highlight old territorial tensions, which were revived in 2012 with Japan’s purchase of the Senkaku Islands from a private owner. Next came China’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in 2013.

Just last year, Beijing justified its ship patrol near the Diaoyu Islands by calling Japan’s actions “irreproachable”. In response, Japan plans to use Self-Defense Force (SDF) units to drive away “Chinese naval ships” from waters near the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands  a move that could severely destabilize China-Japan relations, given the escalation of tensions in the East China Sea.

This new momentum has seen the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands re-emerge as a potential confrontation hotspot in the Asia-Pacific region. Until now, the status quo was maintained through patrolling by both sides, using coast guard vessels. China’s 2015 deployment of a navy frigate operated by the Chinese coast guard near Japan’s claimed 12-mile exclusive economic zone added a hostile dimension to regional stability. If Japan uses SDF units to respond to China’s naval vessels in the disputed waters, China might respond with naval forces and ratchet up tension.

A further threat of conflict cannot be ruled out. China has already upped the ante by deploying the frigate, and has signaled a warning to Japan. In response to Japan’s hardline use of SDF units, China has reacted by claiming that “China has every right to navigate and patrol in its territorial waters near Diaoyu Islands”. For China considers the Diaoyu islands as an “inherent” part of Chinese territory, and thus, its determination to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity is “unswerving” when it comes to Diaoyu islands. China also pointedly asked Japan to exercise restraint and avert any kind of escalation in the East China Sea.

In a strong reaffirmation of China’s sovereignty claims, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei said, “The Diaoyu Island and its adjacent islets have been an inherent part of Chinese territory since ancient times. China’s determination to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity is unswerving”. He added that “the last thing China wants to see is the escalation of tension in the East China Sea”.

Despite these statements, the increasingly hardline positions of both China and Japan – something both refrained from before – shows a shift in policy from both sides, and reflects their mutual failure to encourage dialogue, as agreed to in 2014.

This marked shift in the situation in the East China Sea means any further imbalance in the existing status quo could come at a severe cost to the entire Asia-Pacific region. The ongoing territorial tension between China and Japan makes it a crucial case of regional security. As both sides harden their positions, the likelihood of further escalation cannot be ruled out.

However, since neither side wants a military confrontation, the wisdom lies in de-escalating the tensions. In doing so, both China and Japan need to find confidence-building measures. Since the costs and stakes are equally high on either side, it is expedient for them both to act proactively rather than reactively to avoid unintended clashes. This can be done by quickly implementing a crisis management mechanism by adopting Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the East China Sea. In addition, both sides should make maritime security talks between the two countries a regular fixture.

And most importantly, the leaders of both countries should moderate their military posturing in order to maintain peace and stability and enter dialogue, in order to find a permanent solution to the impending crisis. It is essential that they work together to contain the risks of an unintended military confrontation.

The content of this article does not represent the positions or opinions of the Synergy Editorial Committee. Please address all scholarly concerns directly to the contributor(s) of the article.

Amrita Jash is a Doctoral Candidate at the Centre for East Asian Studies (Chinese Studies), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi-India. She is the Editor-in-Chief at IndraStra Global, New York. She can be reached at: or

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