The spat between China and Japan over their maritime dispute is entering a dangerous phase with the potential to ignite a military confrontation. China lodged an official protest with Japan when its ships entered an area in the Pacific Ocean and disrupted Chinese live ammunition military exercises.
“Not only did this interfere with our normal exercises, but it endangered the safety of our ships and aircraft, which could have led to a miscalculation or mishap or other sudden incident,” Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman Yang Yujun (楊宇軍) said.
He called it “a highly dangerous provocation,” leading the defense ministry to make “solemn representations to the Japanese side.”
Both sides are determined to maintain their ground, with Japan insisting that it would not allow China to change the maritime “status quo” via military means. To this end, Tokyo is beefing up its armed strength and marshaling together a regional front, as China also has contested maritime boundary disputes with other countries in the region.
“There are concerns that China is attempting to change the ‘status quo’ by force [in Asia], rather than by rule of law,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was reported as saying. “But if China opts to take that path, then it won’t be able to emerge peacefully. So it shouldn’t take that path, and many nations expect Japan to strongly express that view. And they hope that as a result, China will take responsible action in the international community.”
Abe’s statement suggests two things. First, that Japan is anointing itself as the leader of a regional coalition to forewarn China against any military action to change the “status quo.”
It is not clear if Abe has the authorization of the countries concerned to be speaking on their behalf, although he did have a series of summits with regional leaders recently. In the absence of any repudiation by countries contesting China’s maritime and territorial claims, it seems that a political regional front, at the very least, is shaping up against China.
Second, Tokyo has made it abundantly clear that it will not budge from its position, even backing it up with military means if necessary.
Even though the US is maintaining its silence on the saber-rattling between China and Japan, it has mutual obligations with Japan if a conflict were to start. The ongoing brinkmanship has consequences that go beyond the Japan-China bilateral relationship.
Ever since Abe became prime minister, Japan has toughened its resolve to face up to China’s assertive claims of sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkakus in Japan. He said that “the security environment facing Japan is becoming ever more severe.”
Taiwan also claims the islands.
Japan is taking concrete measures to beef up its defense. It has raised defense expenditure, as has China over the past few years. It is scrambling jet fighters in reaction to Chinese air and naval visits near the disputed islands and is threatening to shoot down Chinese drones if they fly into Japanese air space. China says that would be an act of war, and so it goes on.
As part of its defense preparedness, Japan recently unveiled its largest warship since World War II, which is somewhat like an aircraft carrier. The ship has a flight deck nearly 250m long and is designed to carry up to 14 helicopters. Its unveiling, in the context of growing tensions with China, gives it a special meaning.