What Is China’s Strategy in the Senkaku Islands?
Chinese operational behavior in the waters around the small group of islands under Japanese administrative control known as Senkaku, and claimed by Beijing under the name Diaoyu, has entered a new, dangerous phase. In an unprecedented move, Chinese coast guard cutters in early July started to operate inside the islands’ territorial waters in a fashion that would suggest Beijing is there to exercise law-enforcement powers. It appears China no longer seeks to just showcase its “presence” in the waters around the islands. It is now starting to actively challenge Japanese control.
For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s successor, reviewing Tokyo’s approach to the management of this contest with Beijing will be a strategic priority. The stakes are high, as a war game recently indicated that escalatory behavior around the Senkaku islands takes the risk of war between Asia’s two largest economies, and America’s most consequential ally in the Indo-Pacific, one step closer.
China’s recent moves are destabilizing, and Japan clearly stated as much in a newly released defense white paper. In the report, the Japanese government presents the nature of the Chinese challenge to its security — especially to the Senkaku islands — in the strongest terms yet. Chinese authorities are in fact described as “relentlessly” pressing their claims to the islands with ever-increasing levels of maritime activities undermining the status quo. Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono made clear that further intensification of activities might trigger the intervention of Japanese military assets. In response to Japanese concerns, the commander of U.S. military forces in Japan has stated that the United States would help monitor the situation. Every successful step Beijing takes in undermining the status quo around the Senkakus through coercion and force is a direct challenge to the credibility of the U.S.-Japanese alliance and, crucially, to the principles informing the maritime rules-based order centered on the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea. While the United States is not party to this treaty, both China and Japan are, and Abe has clearly articulated why China’s actions around the Senkakus fundamentally undermine the principles enshrined in the convention.
What is new then about these recent events, and why do they matter to the stability of the East China Sea and, more broadly, to the wider Indo-Pacific? They matter because they highlight a shift toward what I would argue is the second phase of Beijing’s three-pronged attrition strategy toward the Senkakus: normalizing Chinese presence; exercising law-enforcement rights; and taking over exclusive control. China’s objective is to reverse the current situation — controlling the islands at Japan’s expense — while trying to avoid, if possible at all, an armed conflict. This, in turn, matters because it sets a precedent on dispute management that undermines the law of the sea and the maritime order it represents. Since the islands remain uninhabited, the main focus of Chinese action is the ability to exercise maritime law-enforcement rights inside the islands’ territorial waters, especially in regards to the monitoring of fishing activities. By keeping this contest for control firmly within the realm of the exercise of law-enforcement rights, Beijing retains the initiative to challenge the status quo, limit the risk of war, or at least put Japanese authorities in the difficult position of pacing responses that may invite more escalation.
Phase One: Normalizing China’s Presence
How did this all start? China’s plans to use maritime law-enforcement vessels to intrude into the territorial waters around the Senkaku islands date back to 2006 and were first put into action in December 2008. A collision in June 2006 between a Japanese coast guard vessel and a Taiwanese fishing ship had prompted authorities in Beijing to decide to step up China’s maritime activities around the islands. Subsequently, Chinese law-enforcement vessels entered the territorial waters only sporadically: in August 2011 and again in March and July 2012. It is likely that another collision in September 2010 — this time involving a Chinese trawler and a Japanese coast guard cutter — contributed to the decision to deploy assets again. Japanese authorities arrested the Chinese trawler’s captain, triggering a serious political stand-off between Tokyo and Beijing that lasted months.
The Chinese captain was eventually released, but in September 2012, after the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the Senkaku’s islands, China changed its strategy. Authorities in Beijing abandoned the logic of occasional incursions and started deploying assets inside the territorial waters on a regular basis. The goal of this new approach was not just to challenge the Japanese position on the sovereignty of the islands as implied by the exercise of administrative control. It was to prove that such statements could not possibly be true by normalizing the Chinese law-enforcement presence inside the islands’ territorial waters. As politicians in Tokyo continued to deny the existence of a territorial dispute (a denial that continues to the present day), and U.S. President Barack Obama eventually reaffirmed that Japan held administrative control over the islands, the presence of Chinese vessels was an indispensable first step to corroborate Beijing’s claims.
Chinese maritime law-enforcement agencies underwent a considerable transformation in the last decade and are today more akin to a paramilitary organization than a coast guard. In 2013, Beijing announced a partial fusion of five organizations, and in 2018 it set in motion the integration of the new Chinese coast guard under the command of the People’s Armed Police. These developments were not merely aimed at addressing presence requirements in the East China Sea. They were part of the Chinese Communist Party’s ambition to transform China into a maritime power, a key step to achieve the “China Dream.” China’s maritime reforms led to a considerable increase in hulls and firepower to conduct patrols. The Chinese coast guard boasts today more than 500,000 tons of aggregated tonnage, as opposed to the Japanese coast guard’s overall 150,000 tons, and has been taking delivery of much improved oceangoing capabilities, with a considerable number of them deployed in the East China Sea. By 2019, China had a fleet that could do more than just exert presence, which presents the added challenge of being fully integrated in China’s Eastern Theater military command on operations related to the Senkakus.
Phase Two: Exercising Control
On July 5, 2020, Chinese strategy changed again. On that day, two Chinese coast guard vessels set a new milestone. They exited the islands’ territorial waters after sailing for some 39 hours and 23 minutes. This marked the longest time Chinese surface assets had ever spent inside the waters’ 12-nautical-mile limit. This was no mere “incursion.” It was, as Chinese officials would have it, a “routine” law-enforcement patrol of sovereign waters. In particular, this deployment was not an isolated event. It followed a similarly extended foray of more than 30 hours completed just two days prior in the same area. Taken together, these two activities represented the longest time Chinese vessels have ever spent continuously operating inside the Senkakus’ territorial waters since September 2012.
The exercise of sovereign law-enforcement rights in territorial waters was vital to sustain Beijing’s legal claims and advance its political narrative. This is why the length of these incursions represents a potentially important novelty in operational behavior. If the “routinization” of deployments distinguished the first step of China’s challenge to the status quo, these new extended deployments marked the beginning of a genuine exercise of control. During the second extended stay, the ships reportedly operated at some 4–6 miles off the islands on average, coming as close as within 2.5 miles from the shoreline. The ships also sought to approach Japanese fishing boats at least on one occasion — an act that is consistent with the attempt at exercising law-enforcement rights — prompting the Japan Coast Guard to deploy its own assets to counter China’s actions.
How do we know that these two events are symptomatic of a new phase of Chinese strategy? One important indicator is the more continuous presence in the islands’ contiguous zone (which includes the 12 nautical miles adjacent to the territorial waters). Since January 2020, Chinese vessels have in fact been spotted in waters around the islands for more than 100 days without interruption. This represents the longest streak since the islands were acquired by the Japanese government in 2012. Such a continuous presence reinforces China’s ability to patrol inside the territorial waters when needed. It seems no coincidence that the relative reduction of the number of vessels spotted inside the territorial waters in the past months has occurred against a stark expansion in the number of vessels spotted in the contiguous zone. Higher continuity in presence in the contiguous zone allows for more prompt deployments inside the territorial waters to engage with foreign boats. In fact, following a case that occurred early in May, Chinese spokespersons pointed out that Chinese vessels “tracked and monitored” a Japanese boat illegally fishing inside the territorial waters. Chinese vessels asked the Japanese fishing boat to leave the area, and eventually “resolutely responded to the illegal interference of the Japanese Coast Guard.”
Official Japanese figures indicate that China’s pattern of deployments and operational conduct this year are looking like the beginning of a new normal. Last year, Chinese vessels entered the contiguous zone around the Senkakus some 1,097 times, spending a total of 282 days there, far exceeding the previous record of 819 times for some 232 days collected in 2013.
The sharp increase has not gone unnoticed among the leadership in Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party. In December 2019, the Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council chair, Shunichi Suzuki, had specifically raised the party’s concerns about Chinese maritime activities, something that it expected Abe to consider as the government prepared for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s official visit the following spring. Eventually, Xi’s visit was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Japan’s concerns over Chinese behavior in the East China Sea have not eased. Reportedly, Chinese authorities have warned Japanese counterparts that many Chinese fishing boats may enter the Senkakus from August to September. However, these intrusions would only prompt a stronger Japanese coast guard presence — reinforcing the point about Japan’s control of the islands, which is precisely what the Chinese strategy wishes to undermine.
Phase Three: Taking Over?
In 2018, the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship seemed to be cause for optimism. The Japanese government sought engagement where possible with China. There were fewer incursions around the islands, Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to visit China in seven years, and Tokyo and Beijing agreed to a maritime and air communication mechanism to improve crisis prevention in the East China Sea. Fast-forward to September 2020, and the optimism has vanished. In Japan, the Ishigaki municipality, in the Okinawa prefecture, passed a bill in June to rename an administrative area including the Senkaku islands, from “Tonoshiro” to “Tonoshiro Senkaku.” China’s Natural Resources Ministry responded the following day by publishing a list of names for 50 seabed areas that included part of the Senkakus. The politics of contested sovereignty has resumed, and so have the maritime activities.
China has stepped up its game. The challenge to Japanese control is real, and nothing that has happened since 2012 suggests that one should nurture expectations of a return to a status quo ante. On the contrary, if the events of the past few weeks are any indication, the question is no longer whether Beijing is planning to replace Tokyo in controlling the islands, but when it will elect to do so. Indeed, an examination of the data from the last eight years suggests that challenging Japan’s control was no result of short-term opportunism. It is part of a long-term plan that has slowed down or accelerated based on specific circumstances. Crucially, a combination of material factors — chiefly organizational reforms that have increasingly “militarized” China’s coast guard, and improvements in capabilities — have given Beijing the confidence to implement a new and more assertive operational practice.
The Senkaku islands matter to the stability of the East China Sea and the broader Indo-Pacific region because a conflict between the two Asian powers would not remain confined to the waters around the islands. At the moment, there is no indication that Chinese maritime activities around the Senkakus will stop. Putting pressure on Japan so that it becomes a minor presence in the islands might be the next objective. The Japanese government has made clear it will not accept such an outcome and has recently acknowledged that its military stands ready to “act firmly.” The risk of war increases as Japan’s red lines get clearer and Chinese actions seem designed to test them. Since the Senkaku islands are close to American bases in Japan — exposing them directly to the effects of military escalation — armed conflict would inevitably put the alliance to its most critical test.
More broadly, the Senkaku islands are not as insignificant as some have argued, nor do they affect only Sino-Japanese relations. Actions aimed at changing and challenging the islands’ status quo through coercion and force affect the stability of the international maritime order. China’s use of constabulary coercion to advance a territorial claim sets a precedent in the management of contested maritime spaces that fundamentally undermines the international maritime rules-based order as a whole. What happens around the Senkakus can be replicated elsewhere, not least across the Strait of Taiwan, or in the disputes in the South China Sea or in the Eastern Mediterranean.
What can Japan do? A good place to start is to review the notion of “control” in territorial waters to frustrate Beijing’s constabulary-focused attrition strategy. Exploring options to widen the meaning of “administrative control” — from imposing limits on all fishing, to the building of lighthouses or shelters for fishermen, or resuming research activities around the islands or their use as training ground for the U.S. military — should not be off the table. In August, the ruling party established a study group to do just that. Similarly, in light of the militarization of the Chinese coast guard and its integration in the Chinese military chain of command, Japanese authorities should review their notion of what constitutes the use of force to widen the compass of military options in support of the Japanese coast guard. Enhancing monitoring functions around the islands, with the support of the United States where possible, should continue to be a top priority to better anticipate actions and tailor responses.
Yoshihide Suga, the leading contender to replace Shinzo Abe as Japan’s prime minister, has the support of influential factions that welcome a steady relationship with Beijing. Some Chinese observers have expressed similar positive views about Suga. Whoever becomes prime minister will certainly inherit a fast-deteriorating situation, and should take the lead in resuming discussions with Beijing for a crisis management and prevention mechanism applicable to their coast guards. This might help a delaying strategy, though the air and maritime mechanisms already in place have thus far elicited limited success. Indeed, realizing that slowing the Chinese advance in the Senkakus may no longer suffice as a strategy may be the greatest challenge facing post-Abe Japan.
Alessio Patalano is reader in East Asian warfare and security at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is the author of Post-war Japan as a Sea Power: Imperial Legacy, Wartime Experience and the Making of a Navy.