China is relentlessly trying to sap Japan’s resolve over the disputed islands

Think about how Beijing built islands in the South China Sea and then fortified them, eventually planting what the former head of the US Pacific Command in 2018 called the “Great Wall of SAMs” – surface-to-air missiles – on islands that Chinese leader Xi Jinping years ago promised not to militarize.

“The relevant construction work that China is doing in the Nansha (Spratly) Islands does not target or affect any country, and China has no intention of militarizing,” Xi told former US President Barack Obama at the White House in 2015. .

These militarized islands are also partially claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, but it is unlikely that their claims will be realized in any of these places. Islands with names like Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef are essentially bases for the People’s Liberation Army.

Now Beijing may be slowly taking the bulb off another disputed island chain, the rocky, uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, administered by Japan and known in China as the Diaoyu.

Chinese coast guards and even naval ships have spent a record amount of time in the waters around Senkaku this year, according to Japan’s Defense Ministry.

Earlier this week, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy frigate entered the waters of the adjacent area around Senkaku to only for the fourth time since 2016Japanese officials said.

The contiguous zone covers the waters between the islands that do not fall within the 12-mile boundary of the country’s territorial waters. Foreign warships are allowed in these waters, so the Chinese navy has not violated any international agreements, and China’s foreign ministry told CNN earlier this year that patrolling by the Chinese Coast Guard in the waters surrounding the islands was “the proper exercise of China’s sovereign right.” “

China attempted to demonstrate that right on Monday by warning a Russian Navy frigate to leave the same waters, a Japanese official said.

“Beijing’s goal is to establish and demonstrate effective control over the Senkaku Islands,” and it needs symbols of that control, said James Brown, an associate professor of political science at Temple University in Tokyo.

“The dispatch of his frigate to monitor the actions of the Russian ship could be construed as one such symbol of control,” Brown said.

The record amount of time Chinese ships spend near Senkaku is another claim, Brown said.

In order to make international legal claims to the islands over Japan, “China simply needs to establish a larger and longer presence of its ships in the waters around the islands,” he said.

Competing claims

Although the islands are uninhabited, they are associated with economic interests. Council on Foreign Relations.

The islands “have potential reserves of oil and natural gas, are close to well-known shipping lanes and are surrounded by rich fishing areas,” the report said.

Tokyo says its claims to the islands are rooted in history. The website of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that in 1895 the network was incorporated into Japanese territory after the government “carefully established that prior to this period there was no trace of control of the Senkaku Islands by another state.”

Vessels of the Japanese coast guard to the rear and to the right are sailing alongside Japanese activists & # 39;  a fishing boat, centered with a flag, near a group of disputed islands called China's Diaoyu and Japan's Senkaku, August 2013.

At one point, there were about 200 Japanese living on the islands, which further solidified Tokyo’s claims, and China did not dispute Japan’s sovereignty over Senkaku for 75 years, the report said.

“This changed in the 1970s when significant attention was drawn to the islands due to the potential presence of oil reserves in the East China Sea,” the ministry’s website says.

Now these Chinese calls come regularly.

Japan said on Wednesday that Chinese coast guard ships entered Japan’s territorial waters in the Senkaku circuit for the 16th time this year, approaching a Japanese fishing boat.

The Japan Coast Guard said its patrol boats continue to warn Chinese ships to leave. And Tokyo said it protested the Chinese presence near Senkaku through diplomatic channels.

Remote island bolsters defenses amid growing tensions between Japan and China

But China has given no indication that it is ready to negotiate over the islands.

The country’s foreign ministry claims the islands are China’s original territory and accuses Japanese fishing boats of “repeated incursions” into the area.

And sending Chinese warships to patrol and monitor the waters around the islands “is an act of protecting national sovereignty,” Zhou Yongsheng, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at the China University of Foreign Affairs, told state-run tabloid Global Times on Monday. .

So Tokyo’s protests are just words. And if Beijing ignores them and continues to peel onions, Tokyo will be left with options it doesn’t want to, Brown said.

He pointed to a 2010 incident in the islands in which a Chinese trawler rammed two Japanese coast guard ships. Japan arrested the trawler’s captain, but he was later released without charge in the face of a series of escalatory measures from Beijing, including an unofficial ban on the export of vital rare earth metals to Japan.

Tensions remained high for three months, and there was strong internal protest from the Japanese government over its response to the incident.

“Japan will not take the risk of a repeat incident with a collision,” Brown said.

chopping onion

Last year, China introduced a law allowing the Chinese Coast Guard to use weapons to protect national sovereignty, which, in a standoff like the 2010 standoff, greatly expands Beijing’s options. This makes Japan even more cautious, Brown said.

Excessive caution can turn into paralysis. Like the Philippines, Vietnam, or Taiwan in the South China Sea, Japan could be the victim of China’s relentless rip-off.

“In general, Japan is at risk of losing control of the Senkaku Islands,” Brown said.

A Chinese maritime reconnaissance ship (top) attempts to approach a Japanese fishing boat, below the Japanese Coast Guard vessel Ishigaki cruising alongside a Chinese ship near Japan's Senkaku Islands and China's Diaoyu Islands in April.  2013.

Some might argue that Senkaku has one layer of protection that China might not be able to push back — the US-Japan security treaty, which requires Washington to protect Japanese territory.

Brown said read it in the fine print and then take into account the possible paralysis of the Japanese.

“The US security commitment extends to “territories under Japanese administration.” Therefore, Beijing may come to the conclusion that if Japan no longer exercises such management, US security guarantees regarding the Senkaku Islands will no longer apply, ”he said.

And at this moment, the onion will not only be peeled, but also chopped.

Junko Ogura of CNN contributed to this report.