Both China and Japan are likely to enhance their physical presence in the East China Sea as each attempts to assert effective control over disputed waters.
Disputes over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea have caused tension in Sino-Japanese relations. Both China and Japan claim sovereignty over the islands and the archipelago’s exclusive economic zone. Over the past two decades, China has sought to consolidate its position on the issue through practical and proactive tactics. Because of the prominent strategic value of the archipelago in the East China Sea and the broader Western Pacific, China’s primary competitors—Japan and the US—have also adjusted their policymaking directions in pursuit of more influence in the region. Facing strategic challenges, China will continue to stay active in its military advancement for a higher level of physical presence and greater capacity in response to contingencies.
Since Shinzo Abe, the current Prime Minister of Japan, came into office in 2012, the Japanese government has interpreted China’s expanding military might in the East China Sea as a source of security threats. To mitigate the impact of China’s progression of effective control over the disputed areas, the Abe Administration has sought to lift the ban on its collective Self-Defense Force, particularly under the scope of defending US naval ships on high seas in joint operations. In the meantime, Abe has also reiterated the urgency of rearmament and the need to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution.
On December 18, 2018, Japan’s cabinet approved the new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) for FY 2019 and Beyond and Medium Term Defense Program (FY 2019 – FY 2023). The guidelines are the two most important policy documents that outline Japan’s security environment, defense policy directions, and budget plans. Concerned with more security challenges in East Asia, the guidelines highlight the necessity of strengthening Japan’s national defense through a comprehensive architecture and a robust alliance with the US. The guidelines also call for an increase in the country’s military capacity by allowing it to possess its first aircraft carrier equipped with cutting-edge fighter jets made by the US.
Beijing views this prominent update of Japan’s security policy as an aggressive move that challenges regional stability. In light of concerns of escalated tension in the East China Sea, this article will provide an overview of the dynamics of the Senkaku disputes and examine how China’s policy has evolved over the past twenty years. To understand the power contest and balance in East Asia, it will analyze the role played by the US and the US-Japan Alliance in the region. Regarding the importance of China’s military rise in the East China Sea, this article will also assess China’s current policy directions in the region and give a prospect of China’s strategic moves in a broader picture.
The Importance of the Senkaku Islands
The Senkaku Islands have economic and symbolic values for both China and Japan. The water around the islands has abundant fishing resources with the seabed believed to contain deposits of oil and gas. Historically, China insists that the Senkaku Islands are a part of Taiwan and that Japan relinquished sovereignty over the islands after it formally renounced rights to Taiwan. The symbolic value for Japan also places emphasis on territorial integrity. In 1972, the US and Japan signed the Okinawa Reversion agreement, under which the US returned the Okinawa Prefecture to Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku islands.
Because China and Japan have placed more emphasis on pursuing sea power beyond their coastlines throughout the 2010s, the strategic value of the Senkaku Islands as part of the first island chain began to dominate in both countries’ strategic thinking. Primary archipelagos through which the first island chain stretches include Japanese home islands, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, and the Philippine archipelagos. The arc-shaped first island chain encircles the majority of China’s east coastline. Because of its adjacency to Japan, China perceives the Senkaku Islands as one of the potential vulnerabilities toward other military powers that would jeopardize China’s national security. Meanwhile, as a part of the first island chain, effective control of the Senkaku Islands would contribute to extending China’s military reach to the deeper Western Pacific. Since the Islands lie at the overlapping area of power competition between two countries, the strategic value for Japan is to prevent China from installing assets for surveilling and investigating Japan and the US’s maritime and airspace activities in the East China Sea and the Western Pacific.
How has Chinese Policy Evolved?
Dynamics in the East China Sea and China’s Policy in 2000s and Before
Contemporary disputes over the Senkaku Islands arose when Nihon Seinensha, a Japanese rightist group, filed an application for formal recognition of a lighthouse residing on the Senkaku Islands as an official beacon in the 1990s. While individuals from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China attempted to land on the Island against Japan’s claim in the 1990s, tension escalated to a government level in the early 2000s. In 2002, Japan leased three of the Senkaku Islands from a private owner under the leadership of then-Prime Minister of Japan Junichiro Koizumi. The administration legitimized the lease by stating it would prevent third-party purchase or lease and regulate landing on the islands. China, however, believed that this unilateral move was an exercise of state sovereignty and called it invalid.
In addition to official rhetoric, Beijing gave permits to the grassroots activities that aimed to protect the Senkaku Islands (referred to as Baodiao activities). In March 2004, seven Chinese activists landed on the disputed islands. Japan arrested them for violating its immigration laws. As it was a clear sign of applying domestic laws over the islands, China accordingly urged Japan to deport the activists and allowed small-scale demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing and other major cities. Two days after the incident, Japan deported the activists under pressure from China. At the time, Koizumi commented that the issue must be handled in a way that would not damage the bilateral relationship.
To challenge Japan’s de facto administrative control over the Senkaku Islands, China increased maritime activities in the disputed areas. Based on the 2003 Japan Coast Guard (JCG) report, 423 Chinese vessels were spotted in the surrounding waters of the disputed islands. These vessels included fishing, research, and naval ships. The total number of vessels observed in broader Japanese claimed territories and exclusive economic zones was much larger. Despite Japan’s protest against China’s unilateral operations to the detriment of Japan’s interests, China responded with a continuing influx of its vessels in the region.
Dynamics in the East China Sea and China’s Policy in 2010s
Tension in the East China Sea reached a primarily stable phase after Koizumi left office in 2006. However, new disputes emerged with a confrontation between a Chinese fishing trawler and two JCG vessels in 2010. In response to Japan’s detention of the captain and the crew of the fishing trawler, Beijing halted shipments of rare earth elements, crucial minerals used in the production of automobiles and military equipment, to Japan. 2010 is remarked as an important year because it showed an early sign of escalated tension between the two countries.
In September 2012, the Japanese government purchased three of the Senkaku Islands from a private owner to prevent a purchase that would have been made by then-Governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara. In addition to asserting the sovereignty that China claimed, Beijing substantially strengthened maritime law enforcement activities. The administration also increased the presence of naval ships and military patrol flights around the Islands and in the broader East China Sea.
When Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012, tensions between the two countries intensified. The Abe Administration has aimed to revise and reinterpret the US-drafted pacifist constitution with a goal to accelerate the process of military development. Plans include diversifying the missions of Japan’s Self-Defense Force, engaging in broader and closer cooperative relations with the US, and developing sophisticated military hardware. Beijing has been concerned that Abe’s attempts represent a resurgence of Japan’s past aggression and a violation of Japan’s post-war defense-only policy.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping came into office in 2013, tension began to escalate to a security challenge to Japan. Not only did Xi elevate the status of the Senkaku Islands to a Chinese core interest, but he also sought an augmentation of China’s forces in the East China Sea. In March 2013, the National People’s Congress passed a reform of China’s maritime law enforcement agencies to standardize and systematize regular patrols on the sea. The reform integrated five maritime agencies, allowing more and larger ships to be included in China’s coast guard fleet. China’s regular patrols reached a prominent level in April and August of 2013 and August 2016, with 25, 28, and 23 Chinese vessels, respectively, identified by Japan within the 12 nautical mile zone of the Islands. The number of Chinese vessels identified is greater in the overall contiguous zones, with the highest level, 147 vessels, spotted in August 2016. In November 2013, the administration declared and established a Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, which covers the Senkaku Islands and the surrounding waters.
There have also been repeated appearances of Chinese military aircraft and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy warships in the areas adjacent to the Senkaku Islands, as well as specific military activities which could lead to potential conflicts. In early 2013, the Japanese Defense Minister claimed that the PLA Navy frigate locked its fire control radar on a Japanese destroyer. Abe commented that this action was dangerous and could have resulted in an unexpected situation.
In 2018, both countries developed new plans to consolidate their presence in the East China Sea. Earlier in 2018, China changed the command authority of the coast guard fleet from the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) to the Central Military Commission (CMC). The SOA is a civilian administrative agency that specializes in law enforcement, maritime survey, and environmental protection in the waters under China’s jurisdiction. Handing the control of the coast guard fleet to top military body has indicated more centralized control over China’s civilian vessels. The simplified chain of command has also implied better preparedness in potential conflict. Incorporating coast guard vessels into military command structure also blurs the line between civilian and military activities. Since Beijing has persisted in pursuing a physical presence in the East China Sea, there may be more incentives for China to conduct proactive maritime operations in the name of routine patrols and civilian activities.
Japan’s 2018 defense policy has a clear objective to augment its maritime capacity. In April 2018, Japan activated the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB) under its Ground Self-Defense Force to resist challenges against disputed islands in the East China Sea. This is the first time that Japan activated a marine unit since World War II. The ARDB comprises 2,100 troops and allows Japan’s Self-Defense Force to operate at sea far from its coastlines. Additionally, as reported in December 2018, Japan’s new Medium-Term Defense Program, a specific five-year policy outlook under the NDPG, says that the administration plans to expand defense outlays over 27 trillion yen (about 240 billion US dollars) over the next five years. This will reach a prominent level of Japan’s five-year defense budget plan, more than 2 trillion yen (about 17.6 billion dollars) larger than the last five-year plan which ended in March 2019.
Also, Japan will refurbish the helicopter carrier Izumo to become its first aircraft carrier, with the possession of a second aircraft carrier to be scheduled in the near future. As aircraft carriers will allow Japan to have great improvements in maritime and air defense capacity to defend remote islands, this has become one of the most substantial shifts in Japan’s defense policy during the post-war era. Critics note that the “possession of an aircraft carrier would give Japan a strike capability in violation of its pacifist constitution that limits the use of force to self-defense only.” In response to critics, Abe asserts that Japan is facing growing security threats from China and, therefore, Japan needs to fundamentally strengthen its defense capabilities.
A Picture of China’s Policy Evolvement
China has sought to reinforce and consolidate its position on the island disputes over the last two decades. Under leadership from Jiang Zemin to Xi Jinping, Beijing’s understanding regarding the disputes has been highly consistent. That is, tension in the East China Sea was caused by Japan’s unilateral change to the status quo, and therefore, China should respond accordingly to restore balance in the region.
The policies and approaches to do so have varied from one Chinese administration to another. Before Xi took office, Beijing was more inclined to use “salami tactics,” a steady progression based on “small and furtive” changes on the ground that will eventually achieve a qualitative leap in favor of China’s position. Chinese leaders tended to keep a relatively low profile in the disputes by using rhetoric as opposed to substantial engagements with the Japanese Coast Guard in the East China Sea. Beijing also gave tacit approval to grassroots activities and protests, a stark departure from the usual apprehension Chinese leaders feel about popular movements in major cities because of social stability concerns. Beijing has reasoned that nationalist activities could express China’s discontentment of Japan’s action in the disputes without triggering unwanted conflicts at an official level. This strategic thinking has effectively prevented China from exposing itself to a dramatic national security challenge.
With China’s economic and military development throughout the 2010s, however, Beijing has taken more initiatives to reshape Sino-Japanese relations in the contentious region. Particularly after Japan’s normalization of three of the Islands, the Chinese side is seeking a more secure environment for its physical presence in the East China Sea. Under Xi’s leadership, persistent patrols and operations conducted by China’s coast guard and PLA Navy has inevitably worsened the mutual security environment. Not until recently when China has exerted efforts to reach an agreement on communication mechanisms with Japan have the attempts to reduce security risks resulting from potential stand-offs and collisions been on Xi’s priority list. This suggests that Xi is more concerned with Chinese sovereignty gains and the balance of power against Japan in the East China Sea. As a result of the strategic values of the archipelago, Beijing has endeavored to construct its military capacity to extend its maritime powers in the contested region. Hoping to gain more strategic leverage in the East China Sea, Beijing demonstrates an urgency to distinguish itself in the world geopolitical arena.
The best proxy demonstrating China’s tactics is the trend of China’s increasing presence of vessels in the East China Sea. Published by the Japanese Coast Guard, Figure 1 summarizes the number of Chinese vessels detected by Japan within 12 nautical miles of the Senkaku Islands and in the broader contiguous zones around the Islands. As of February 2019, China has dispatched on average ten vessels a month within 12 nautical miles of the Senkaku Islands since Xi took office. The number of vessels in the broader East China Sea reached an average level of 60 on a monthly basis. However, prior to 2013, there were only several instances of Chinese vessels in the contentious areas.
The Role of the US in the Disputes over the Senkaku Islands
With the escalating tension over the Senkaku Islands and the East China Sea, Tokyo has sought support from Washington. According to the 2014 bilateral summit between President Obama and Prime Minister Abe, the US continued to maintain a neutral position regarding the sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku Islands, but agreed to defend Japan under the obligations of the US-Japan Security Treaty. Further, during the 2014 joint press conference in Tokyo, Obama did not reveal his position on the Senkaku disputes, and instead urged Japan to be cautious about proactive actions, stressing that his administration supported China’s peaceful rise. In contrast, the Trump Administration provided a more explicit statement at the Trump-Abe 2017 summit. Tokyo was reassured that the US recognized Japan’s administrative right over the Senkaku Islands—that it would defend Japan under Article 5 of the Mutual Defense Treaty and oppose actions and efforts that undermined Japan’s administrative rights.
Although facing pressure from the Trump Administration, Beijing has neither changed its sovereign claim to the Senkaku Islands, nor altered the strategies that contribute to a more consolidated position in the disputed areas. China has continued to send vessels and aircraft to the contiguous zones as its primary strategy. Xi once stated that US involvement would only lead to instability in the region and argued that the US-Japan Alliance reflected a view of China as an “enemy.”
Prospects of an Intensified Presence of Forces in the East China Sea
Sino-Japanese relationships have reached a temporary deadlock over the Senkaku disputes in the East China Sea. Endorsed by both China and Japan, increasing physical presence in the disputed areas is the most effective pathway by which each nation can gain access to territorial gains and sea power. The central issue in this discussion is the extent to which both countries would be willing to alleviate the pressure incurred from the antagonistic bilateral relationship in the East China Sea. According to the analysis above, both countries have sent little such signals.
Two Asian Powers Will Intensify Their Physical Presence in the East China Sea
China’s strategic expansion in the East China Sea has been a key focus of Japan. If China is said to have adopted small and incremental approaches to gain control over the contested waters throughout the 2000s, Japan may argue that its sea power is currently growing too fast. Without transparent records of defense spending and military capacity, suspicions among China’s competitors increase. Although the potential Taiwan Strait conflict remains the primary driver of China’s military modernization, tension in the East China Sea and China’s growing emphasis on contingency operations have spurred Japan to make major updates in its NDPG and military procurement plans.
The key theme of Japan’s latest NDPG is a greater emphasis on strengthening its own defense capacity and deepening cooperation with the US. Specifically, Japan’s Self-Defense Force is expected to be more resistant to antagonistic forces via stand-off capabilities, advancement of requisite military units, and technology renovation. Under the scope of the Japan-U.S. Security Arrangement, Japan seeks an enhanced alliance with the US under the Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation. Hoping that the US can play a greater role in countering threats and maintaining regional stability by deterrence, Japan has identified military equipment and facilities, technological innovation, and intelligence and information security to be the main fields on which to cooperate with its ally.
The competing strategic interests in the East China Sea between the two countries are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile. In the aftermath of Japan’s incursion into China during World War II, China has been vigilant against Japan’s propensity of drifting apart from its post-war identity as a defeated country. In the course of Japan’s military advancement, China shows an urgency for its own rise in comprehensive national power to restore the balance in East Asia.
Although China’s rapid military rise is consistently condemned by its Japanese counterparts, it might be difficult to tell if China’s policy in the Senkaku disputes is purely proactive. With high-level growth in military investment amid a pessimistic GDP forecast in the future, the Chinese administration may endure pressure from hefty state expenditures. As suggested by one of the Chinese aphorisms that “a boat sailing against the current must forge ahead or it will be driven back” (逆水行舟，不进则退), a more militarily-capable Japan does not leave China many options. Any propensity to compromise or slow down the process of military development would suggest waning Chinese power in the East China Sea. This would also undermine China’s strategic gains within the first island chain.
Consider, too, that China and Japan may have fallen into paradoxical decision-making schemes. This is important because both countries understand the risks that arms races and miscalculations contribute to regional instability, but neither nation has the incentive to back off. Intensified tension over the Senkaku disputes suggests that a gain of one party is at the expense of the other. As strategic competitors, both countries will continue to act in their own self-interest—a continuing military buildup of each.
US Presence Urges China’s Acceleration in its Military Advancement
Since World War II, Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture has been a preferred site for the forward deployment of US forces in Asia. US forces are remarkably concentrated in this region because of Okinawa’s high geo-strategic value whose location allows the US to considerably extend its outreach in East Asia. The Okinawa Prefecture hosts the US Navy Seventh Fleet and other significant maritime and air force assets. Therefore, as a cornerstone of the US-Japan Alliance, US bases in Okinawa play an important role in defending Japan and supporting its national security. In the context of the Senkaku disputes, Okinawa’s adjacency to the Senkaku Islands further enhances the ability of the US-Japan Alliance to deter Japan’s potential rivals in disputed waters.
As archipelagos of the first island chain are considered important gateways to the East Asian continent, US force that perches in Okinawa may be considered a persistent concern to China. Since US Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech on China at the Hudson Institute in October 2018, the mistrust between the two countries has escalated. As the US continues to maintain and reinforce its military presence in Japan in general, China has reason to believe that the US may use its military maneuvers to undermine China’s sovereign and strategic interests in the East China Sea and prevent China from reaching out to outer regions in the Western Pacific.
China perceives itself to be vulnerable to forces operating close to its east coastlines. As China and the US do not have sovereign disputes, and the US has not taken a position in the disputes over the Senkaku Islands between China and Japan, the intention of the US forces in the East China Sea is not only dubious for China, but has also stimulated China’s fear of strategic containment. With current friction in international trade that has deteriorated US-China relations, China has tended to avoid direct confrontation with US forces. However, China may obtain a more secure environment by establishing full-fledged naval and air forces in the East China Sea.
Prospect: China’s Policy Directions in the Future
The complexity of Sino-Japanese relations in the East China Sea stems from strategic competition between the two countries. Because Beijing and Tokyo recognize the limited room for negotiation or trade-offs, they each have more incentive to consolidate their positions rather than seek compromises. To obtain more effective control in the East China Sea and exert more influence in the Asia-Pacific region, specific measures China could take to enhance its interests include the following six aspects.
First, China could continue to maximize its physical presence in the disputed waters while minimizing the risk of triggering a direct military collision with Japan. China’s maritime patrols and air activities have undermined Japan’s administrative rights over the Senkaku Islands and the surrounding waters. Yet, at the current level of China’s activities, Japan has not made outright military confrontations against Chinese assets. Before encouraging further military construction in the disputed areas, however, China could estimate the threshold at which Japan would make military responses. To do so, China could continue exploring Japan’s boundaries by gradually ratcheting up the scale and intensity of maritime and airspace activities and analyzing the patterns of Japan’s response. Also, China could assess the risk of a direct clash to avoid unnecessary accidents that would threaten China’s national security. As part of the military expansion, China could also continue promoting its economic growth to support arm purchases and military technology advancement.
Second, China could enhance intragovernmental cooperation and improve communications with its Japanese counterparts. One prominent improvement could be made by coordinating frequent communications between China’s military and civilian agencies, such as the PLA Navy and the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Also, to avoid unintended military clashes, China could place emphasis on establishing communication channels with its Japanese counterparts. In June 2018, China and Japan launched the Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism (MAMC), which aims at facilitating communication between military officials of the two countries when there are close encounters. The MAMC, however, does not specify the geographical areas to which it should apply. Back in 2015, the scope of application halted the MAMC negotiation because the Chinese side insisted that the mechanism should apply to the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea around the Senkaku Islands while the Japanese side disagreed. The effort to include the 12-nautical-mile surrounding waters in the arrangement was firmly opposed by Japan because of the concerns that China would be able to continue its incursions as long as the communication mechanism was operating. In this case, therefore, China could continue working with Japan to identify the scope of the MAMC to avoid potential situations where there is a danger of military collision without any effective communication channel. In addition, China could continue deepening diplomatic consultations and set up hotlines between heads of governments in case of an emergency. Equally important, China could launch an initiative to develop a mutual crisis relief mechanism as a last resort in case of outright military-to-military collisions.
Also, China could calculate US interests in the East China Sea and assess the robustness of the US-Japan Alliance. The presence of the US in the disputed waters increases the complexity of analyzing each party’s strategic moves. As an ally to Japan, the US maritime power limits the scope of China’s policymaking through deterrence. Therefore, China could closely evaluate coverage of the US-Japan Security Treaty and the likelihood that the US will provide direct military support to its Japanese counterparts. In addition to shared values with Japan, the US has its own strategic interests in the East China Sea and the broader waters in the Western Pacific. For example, while Japan prioritizes the sovereign disputes over the disputed islands, the US remains interested in freedom of navigation, through which it can enhance its military presence and exert its influence in the Asia-Pacific region. To avoid increasing tension with the US, Beijing could investigate the US interests in broader policy areas.
Meanwhile, China could investigate the systemic vulnerability of the US-Japan Alliance and seek to undermine its robustness or take strategic advantage from it. The systemic vulnerability lies in the diverse interests between the US and Japan. Although the two countries share common ground in the East China Sea, they have diverse interests in other policy goals in the Asia-Pacific region. To weaken the Alliance, China could exploit and widen the gap in their perception of interests. For example, considering how the US and Japan are both trade partners with China, China could import more from one country at the expense of the trade income from the other, increasing disparities within shared interests between both nations. Or alternatively, China could seek to enhance its policy gains by taking advantage of the inconsistent policy directions between the US and Japan. For instance, while US forces have strived to enhance their stationing in Okinawa, the latest NDPG clearly states that Japan will mitigate the US impact on Okinawa’s local communities through realignment, reduction, and relocation of US forces in Okinawa, a clear demonstration of strong domestic opposition to the US forces in Japanese territory. Facing possible waning US forces residing along the first island chain, China, in turn, could take this potential opportunity to exert more influence in the region.
In addition, China could take initiative to create shared interests with the US in the Asia-Pacific region. US interests in Asia may or may not necessarily align with Japan’s interests, but in either case, a closer relationship between the US and China would imply a less robust US-Japan Alliance. The US would face more constraints in its Asian policymaking discretion and be more reluctant to policies that hamper its shared values with China. The US may also face policy gridlock when US-China shared interests are not consistent with those the US shares with Japan. In turn, this would allow Beijing to have more leverage in negotiations with Washington, and therefore, more flexibility in policymaking in the East China Sea. One example would be denuclearization in North Korea. Because North Korea has inconstant policymaking directions over denuclearization, the US has sought closer cooperation with China on this issue. Therefore, China could offer to facilitate the communication between the US and North Korea in exchange for less US pressure in the East China Sea.
Finally, China could seek to deepen its relationship with Russia. Over the past several decades, Russia has contributed to China’s military advancement by arms sales and the export of military technology. Therefore, in addition to accelerating its own military research and development process, China could continue expanding the scope of military cooperation with Russia. Besides, as both nations are world military powers, a more solid China-Russia relationship could constrain the power expansion of the US-Japan Alliance in the Asia-Pacific. Adding Russia to a strategic rebalance in the region would create more nuance to the calculation of strategic moves of competing powers, which would introduce more prudence in decision-making and reduce the risk of dramatic moves against China by the US and Japan. As the US and Japan may also examine Russia’s influence in Eurasia and the Middle East, a closer relationship with Russia would create more space for China’s rise in the Asia-Pacific and allow China to have more discretion in its policymaking.
The purpose of this article is to investigate and assess China’s evolving policy in the East China Sea toward Japan. To understand China’s policymaking approach, this article examines the dynamics of the disputes over the Senkaku Islands and the changing security environment that China faces in the region. This article also introduces the role played by the US, a primary aspect of the power struggle. Finally, this article provides a prospect of Beijing’s possible policy directions that could enhance its position in the East China Sea and the broader Asia-Pacific Region.
Because the symbolic and geopolitical values of the islands are important to both countries in terms of national pride and security, the dispute has become one of the most prominent issues shaping Sino-Japanese relations. Chinese administrations have sought to consolidate the position in the disputed area by undermining Japan’s de facto administrative rights. Along with Chinese economic and military development, approaches adopted by different Chinese administrations vary. Before 2010, China was more inclined to policies that did not arouse diplomatic or security crises. Since Chinese President Xi came into office in 2013, tension has escalated into a national security challenge for both China and Japan. Beijing has shown a strong incentive to value political and sovereignty gains over regional stability in East Asia. In addition to prioritizing the Senkaku Islands as a core national interest, Beijing has also augmented maritime and air forces, and consolidated China’s physical presence in the East China Sea.
As an ally to Japan, the US is obliged to defend Japan under the US-Japan Security Treaty. Compared to the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration has offered Japan more explicit assurance that the US recognizes Japan’s administrative rights over the disputed islands. Since Japan’s defeat in World War II, the US has deployed its forces in Japan. This has led to prominent strategic values of Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture, a site highly populated with American troops, which allows the US to expand its influence throughout East Asia. In addition, the US is effectively seeking to further intensify its deployment in Japan. Because of the adjacency of Okinawa to the Senkaku Islands, the US has been able to deter Japan’s potential rivals by deterrence in disputed waters.
Based on the previous analysis, this article predicts that both China and Japan will enhance their physical presence in the East China Sea. To acquire more effective control over the disputed waters without exposing itself to extra risks, China could continue to maximize its presence in the disputed waters, estimate the threshold at which Japan would make military response to its operations in the disputed waters, enhance communication channels to maximize policymaking efficiency, evaluate and weaken the robustness of the US-Japan Alliance, create more common understanding with the US in the broader Asia-Pacific region, and deepen its bilateral relationship with Russia.