China's State Oceanic Administration (SOA) on Sept. 14 dispatched six patrol vessels to waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu in Chinese) as a "legitimate act" of law enforcement.
Described by SOA as a response to the Japanese government's purchase of three of the disputed islands from private ownership, this represents the largest deployment in the area to date. And, for the first time, these vessels entered Japanese waters around the five islands.
Do these actions mark the beginning of some sort of military escalation? How likely is it that these incursions will increase the risk of war between the two countries? With mounting pressure to address the dispute over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, does that make conflict in the East China Sea an increasingly more unavoidable option for national authorities in Beijing and Tokyo?
The stakes are certainly high. The East China Sea is an area of major significance to both countries' economies. This has been true for Japan since the 1960s and for China since the 1990s. Vital Japanese and Chinese shipping lanes transit this basin, and ports in these countries feature in global rankings on the handling of international container traffic.
Similarly, the East China Sea is rich in marine resources and the seabed is thought to contain considerable natural deposits, both invaluable elements to the food and energy requirements of these two nations. In this context, the delimitation of the Sino-Japanese maritime border and of their respective exclusive economic zone (EEZ) remains a contentious issue in bilateral relations.
The East China Sea also has important political and symbolic value. In particular, the dispute over sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands is directly connected to questions about the ability of government authorities to guarantee the territorial integrity of a state.
Given that both China and Japan are undergoing political transition, neither country can afford to be seen as weak on matters close to its vital functions.
For all these reasons, the first point to make is that issues in the Eats China Sea are here to stay. This latest spat over the issue of the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands is one expression of a more complex phenomenon, the increased importance of this body of water in Chinese national security.
For several decades, the East China Sea was a theater of major strategic importance for Japan. Since the adoption of the 1976 National Defense Program Outline, the protection of the sea-lanes in this body of water was recognized as a primary mission for the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces.
Today, this is still true for Japan, but the question is that the East China Sea is similarly becoming strategically important to China too. For both countries, this body of water is a primary highway for vital shipping, a crucial source for fish and natural resources, and a place where national authorities affirm their political legitimacy.
The increase in activity by navies and coast guards (or wider law enforcement agencies) in the East China Sea is not a temporary phenomenon. Tensions might well shift from territorial issues, to problems of management of resources, to problems of military movements and exercises in the area.
As such, the key question for authorities in Tokyo and Beijing, as well as for other key state actors like the United States, will concern the development of an approach to the security of this area that takes into the higher profile of regional maritime forces.
Sources of tensions at sea between China and Japan are unlikely to fully subside, and probably will continue for the foreseeable future.
In this context, the People's Liberation Army Navy is a fast evolving organization, enhancing training and expanding the scope of its operations, but it still lags Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force in terms of capabilities, tactics and doctrine. The East China Sea has been an area of crucial strategic importance for Japanese naval operations for several decades.
By contrast, complex open ocean operations in this theater are a relative novelty for Chinese naval forces. This raises doubts as to whether the PLA Navy really wishes a war it would not win.
The risks of escalation will likely come from the realm of constabulary forces and maritime law enforcement agencies.
In China, five separate organizations play a leading role in functions pertaining to the protection of the EEZ and territorial waters. These organizations have seen their capabilities expanding in recent years, and seem eager to prove their relevance to national security. In terms of capabilities, they are well matched by the Japan Coast Guard but they are numerically superior to it.
China on Sept. 14 announced it would submit a sea chart to the United Nations showing that the waters around the Senkaku Islands are part of Chinese territorial waters. This would suggest that Beijing's strategy is for these paramilitary forces to take the lead in Chinese actions in the disputed waters of the East China Sea.
According to some observers, China's goal is to make its presence felt as a matter of course.
One thing is certain. While the risk of war between the two navies would seem to be unlikely, the latest incursion by SOA vessels in waters around the Senkakus and the resumption of the fishing season there make the risk of a confrontation between the constabulary forces of the two countries a possibility.
On the other hand, if such an incident flared, it would be particularly difficult, especially for authorities in Beijing, to prevent further military escalation.
In turn, this would increase the risk of exposing the limits of China's overall naval power.
On Sept. 17, 1894, the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Chinese Beiyang Fleet faced off in what became the main battle of the First Sino-Japanese War. On paper, the Chinese navy fielded a larger fleet and stronger capabilities than the Japanese. Eventually their limitations were exposed and the fleet was defeated.
Today, it is in Chinese interests for history not to repeat itself.
The coast guards of the two countries are increasingly active, but this is perhaps symptomatic of the increased importance of the East China Sea in their respective national security agendas. For these reasons, this maritime theater is likely to remain a core feature of Sino-Japanese security relations in the foreseeable future.
This is the more important lesson to take away from recent events. Patrol vessels in these waters do not mean that war is imminent, but only that maritime issues are certain to remain on the agenda.
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Alessio Patalano is a lecturer in war studies and specializes in East Asian security and Japanese naval history at the Department of War Studies, King's College London.
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