Tensions Flare in East China Sea

On Thursday 8 June, the world was reminded of the often-forgotten dispute in the East China Sea when Japan summoned the Chinese ambassador, Cheng Yongshua, after a Chinese frigate entered the contiguous zone around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have been in dispute for some time and are claimed by both the Japanese and Chinese based on similar historical contexts as claimed in the South China Sea disputes. Whilst there has been some level of bilateral agreement as to what constitutes the territorial seas of Japan and China around these islands, the contentious part that was dealt with here is the status of the contiguous zone. A contiguous zone is defined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as being the zone spanning 24 nautical miles from the territorial sea. Whilst it is technically international waters and the passage of other nations through those areas is not prohibited, states exercising sovereignty over the adjacent territorial sea are able to exert authority over the contiguous zone for practical reasons that the area may affect its own territorial waters, such as for customs or sanitation. So whilst China was legally able to pass through the zone, they have also claimed that it was legitimate of its ship to pass through the area regardless as the “Diaoyu Islands are China’s inherent territory…Other countries have no right to make carping remarks.” Japan has been infuriated by the moves of the Chinese warship around the contentious area. Japanese Defense Ministry, Gen Nakatani, called it a “one-sided act that increases tension”.

The East China Sea is estimated to carry around 200 million barrels of oil and 1-2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. Whilst the resource-rich area has caused great tension between Tokyo and Beijing, outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping have been engaged in bilateral talks to allay the strain on relations between the two largest economies in Asia. This has, to some degree, worked and diplomacy has largely kept the East China Sea dispute off the table. However, this recent move, injunction with Japan’s protest over China’s gas field developments and the interception of US fighter jets by China in the same area has been a continual reminder of the fragility of the area. The Chinese frigate is largely seen as a retaliatory response to Japanese remarks at the G7 meetings, where Japan articulated its intolerance of China’s “intimidating, coercive [and] provocative” actions in both the East and South China Seas. Similarly, the frigate is also seen as being a response to the scheduled naval exercises between Japan, the US and India later in the month.

What should be noted here is that the frigate did leave hours after it was first asked to and it did remain in waters tentatively agreed to be Chinese under bilateral talks between Tokyo and Beijing on the demarcation of the region.

These recent spats cause great concern for the region. With the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s impending decision on the case against China brought by the Philippines due in the next couple of weeks, pressure is on China to avoid making antagonistic moves in the region. A move to reinvigorate bilateral talks between Tokyo and Beijing on the demarcation of the East China Sea, which began in 2010 but stopped soon after, could ease the tensions between Japan and China for the meantime. The growing mistrust between the parties hinders the possibility of a peaceful resolution in this specific part of the region and engaging in talks would help to mend the relations between the two powerful states in the region.