Earlier this month Chinese patrol ships entered Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The Chinese vessels remained in the waters for consecutive days despite Japanese authorities demanding the ships to leave the area. The Japanese Coast Guard reported the Chinese vessels in the area had repeatedly approached a Japanese fishing vessel. While Japan maintains control of the islands claiming they are a part of Japanese territory, China also lays claim. Japan has had official ownership since 1895 excluding a brief 30 year period when the United States administered the islands after World War 2. China’s claim on the islands stems from their discovery in the 14th century as well as the belief that under international law ownership should have been transferred from Japan to China following the first Sino-Japanese War. Japan alleges that China only claimed ownership of the islands following the discovery of oil and gas deposits in the early 1970s. The recent event underscores larger developments including Chinese territorial ambitions, Japanese naval build-up, and military exercises including in the region.
China has territorial ambitions in almost every direction beyond its conventional land borders, which draws it into diplomatic and even military conflicts with its neighbors. To the south, China claims large swathes of the South China Sea cutting into the disputed territory of Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the Philippines. To the west, China and India have engaged in minor skirmishes over the Kashmir region. To the east, China claims parts of the East China Sea, which are also claimed by Japan. In response, Tokyo has been progressively building up its navy, defense equipment, and military capability despite an official policy of pacifism. Japan is now readying an aircraft carrier to be deployed for the first time in 75 years. Officially, Japan intends to utilize the aircraft carrier for air defense in the Pacific region. However, China views this as an aggressive act, going as far as to warn Japan that its anti-ship ballistic missiles would sink Japanese carriers.
Furthermore, Japan has also gained the ire of Beijing by conducting separate joint military exercises with the United States and India. China responded to these military exercises with war games of their own. China conducted live-fire exercises including aircraft near China’s southeast coast. The drills included the targeting of islands and reefs, sending an ominous signal to all countries that counter China’s territorial claims in the South Pacific and East Pacific. China also responded diplomatically, saying that the Japanese should maintain its defensive policy rather than engage in military exercises with perceived Chinese rivals like the US, especially in the Pacific.
China’s territorial ambitions have resulted in stronger rhetoric, military training, cohesiveness, and even direct military engagement with its neighbors. However, this has also created more tension with China, who as noted above responds to such threats with aggressive action, condemning rhetoric, and military threats. If each incident, like China sailing into Japanese territory, result in a series of tit-for-tat military exercises and diplomatic tension, the risk of real and direct conflict is imminent.