The November 23 decision by China’s Ministry of Defense to declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) encompassing its disputed islands with Japan in the East China Sea (known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan) was a tactical and strategic mistake. Not only did the Ministry lack the means to enforce its declaration, which has been contested by many countries that use the airspace, but the move has deepened the alarm in many countries over China’s use of its newfound power and influence.
The Japanese Defense Ministry’s assertion in October 2013 that it had the right to shoot down foreign drones approaching its airspace may have provoked Beijing’s response, but tensions between the two countries have been acute since last year. In September, the Japanese government felt it had to preemptively purchase ownership rights of three of the contested islands from a private Japanese owner before they could fall under the control of Shintaro Ishihara, the nationalist governor of Tokyo, who had announced plans to buy them himself to better protect them from Beijing. The islands are claimed by China and Taiwan but controlled by Japan.
During the Cold War, China was too weak to credibly contest Japan’s administration of the islands. Since then, China’s power, ambition, and assertiveness have grown. Meanwhile, the islands, once seen as worthless and uninhabited, are now thought to be located near valuable undersea natural resources and as well as militarily critical sea lanes.
According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a state’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends 200 nautical miles from its shoreline or from the outer limit of the continental shelf that the state sits on if that outer edge is less than or equal to 350 nautical miles from the country’s shoreline. But the text is ambiguous when it comes to determining ownership of uninhabited islands, including the eight islands (some are simply rocks) at issue. These have a total area of about seven square kilometers.
Setting aside the merits of their respective claims, the contest over the islands reflects a strategic logic of China-Japan competition for regional maritime primacy as well as an acute security dilemma between the two countries.
Chinese leaders view warily Japan’s growing military capabilities, expanding security role in East Asia, and efforts to revise the pacifist clauses in its constitution. Many Chinese also react negatively to the official Japanese stance denying that a dispute even exists over who owns the islands, a stance that reminds them of the perceived Japanese refusal to acknowledge all the crimes committed by Imperial Japan against China before and during World War II.
Although Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s aggressive rhetoric has exacerbated Chinese concerns, this dispute has been just as severe during the years when Abe was out of power. Many Chinese believe that either the United States is encouraging Japan to take a tough stand against Beijing or that Tokyo is exploiting the U.S. Asian Pivot to adopt a more assertive posture toward China in the expectation of securing greater U.S. support.
Japan’s security concerns regarding China include its growing military capabilities, Beijing’s more assertive regional behavior, specific Chinese provocations in the East China Sea, and a general feeling that China is passing Japan to become the most important partner of many Pacific countries, including the United States.
Underlying their differences over history, natural resource claims, and military activities is the fundamental problem that never before have both Beijing and Tokyo been powerful and assertive states. Before Japan’s 1868 Meiji Restoration, China was the dominant regional power. For the next century, Tokyo enjoyed a superior position, interrupted only for a short period after World War II. As a result of Japan’s decade-long economic stagnation and China’s remarkable successful economic transformation, East Asia now must make room for two roughly equivalent economic powers, both with expanding security concerns and growing power projection capabilities.
The Obama administration has said it will honor U.S. security commitments to Japan but will not take sides in Tokyo’s territorial disputes, which includes islands occupied by Russia and South Korea. U.S. policy focuses on the process—such disputes must be resolved without the use of force or coercion—and not the substance—whatever arrangement for the islands Beijing and Tokyo find acceptable would be agreeable to Washington.
That said, Washington and Tokyo have also been seeking to discourage further Chinese provocations, such as the declaration of the ADIZ. In this latter effort, they have been joined by Australia, the Philippines, South Korea and other countries equally concerned by Beijing’s assertiveness. Many of them fear that, once China’s power projection capabilities increase, Beijing will make claims to their national airspace or territory as well.
Over the long term, Japanese and U.S. officials have adopted hedging policies aimed at averting a situation in which the PRC’s rising economic, political, and military power becomes a more serious military threat. Another consideration driving the U.S. response is to reassure nervous U.S. friends and allies in Asia, such as Japan and South Korea, who might resort to more extreme means, such as acquiring nuclear weapons, if they came to doubt the United States can help them manage China’s rising strength.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration is eager to dampen this dispute. The danger of miscalculation is too high, while the islands are hardly worth a war.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.