Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea could soon be replicated in neighboring waters, a Japanese government-backed report said yesterday, amid rising regional nervousness about China’s intentions.
Tokyo should pay close attention to any indication that its giant neighbor is looking to spread its wings into the East China Sea, which abuts Japan, the National Institute for Defense Studies warned.
“For China, just like the South China Sea, the East China Sea is an important route for its advance into the oceans and if China’s military power improves ... it is likely that China will adopt a similar assertive attitude towards this water area as shown in the South China Sea,” it said.
“Therefore, more attention should be paid to the PLA’s [People’s Liberation Army] actions in the waters surrounding Japan,” it said.
The China Security Report, funded by Japan’s defense ministry, was published yesterday for only the second time and comes against the backdrop of a rapid military buildup by Beijing that has set alarm bells ringing across Asia and in Washington.
China lays claim to essentially all of the South China Sea, where its professed ownership of the Spratly Islands (南沙群島) overlaps with claims by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.
Beijing and Tokyo have a longstanding dispute over an uninhabited, but strategically coveted island chain known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyutai (釣魚台) in Chinese, which lies between Japan and Taiwan in the East China Sea.
The two sides have occasionally butted diplomatic heads over the issue, most notably in late 2010, when Japan arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel near the island chain after a collision with its coastguard.
The skipper was held for more than two weeks as Tokyo and Beijing faced off, with relations becoming distinctly chilly before Japan released him, in what was widely seen as a climbdown.
That episode notwithstanding, China has generally shied away from direct confrontations with Japan in the area, the report said.
“Thus far, unlike in the South China Sea, China has not taken such provocative actions in the East China Sea as physical disturbances of foreign survey vessels and major live-fire naval exercise” because of worries about hurting ties with Japan and the US, the report said.
However, Beijing’s drive to boost its naval reach and tip the military balance in the Pacific away from the US may change this, the report said, noting the ongoing construction of a large-scale naval base on Hainan island.
China is hampered in its ability to become a “blue seas” power like the US because its access to the Pacific is largely cut off by Japanese islands and their surrounding territorial waters.