By June Teufel Dreyer.

The recent revelation of two incidents in which Chinese frigates locked target radars onto Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) assets added a new level of escalation to an already tense situation.   Perhaps in order to avoid inflaming these tensions, the Japanese government revealed the incidents only belatedly on February 5—the first incident involved an MSDF helicopter on January 19th, the second, by a different frigate, targeted an MSDF destroyer in the East China Sea on January 30th .  Facing a barrage of criticism from domestic public opinion, the government explained, not entirely convincingly, that it had wanted to be sure before making the information public.

In addition to the danger of the lock-on, an action usually undertaken just before actually firing, the incidents involved a confrontation between the navies of the two countries rather than, as before, the Japanese Coast Guard and Chinese Maritime Surveillance craft and or fishing boats.  A third point of interest is that, unlike previous incidents, the January confrontations occurred out of sight of the contested islands known to the People’s Republic of China as the Diaoyu and to the Japanese as the Senkaku, which have been the focus of a dispute that began after a 1968 United Nations survey indicated the likelihood of oil and gas deposits in the area.

According to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, the latest round of tensions dates from December 2008, when Chinese government vessels intruded into Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkaku islands contributed to public support for a plan to purchase the islands by then-Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintarō. In this narrative, the Japanese government, “in an effort to avoid any negative impact on the bilateral relations by such a move,” purchased three of the five islands.[1]

In another version, the current round of tensions began in September 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat rammed two Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) vessels attempting to expel it from what Tokyo contends are Japanese waters.  The arrest of the captain, whom the Beijing government said had every right to fish in the area since it belonged to China, brought a fresh round of tensions.  In the face of anti-Japanese protests and embargoes that were hurting its economy, the captain was released.  Beijing then asserted its right to patrol the contested waters, and has been doing so with regularity.  The incorporation of these islands into China would bring the PRC’s territorial waters uncomfortably close to the coast of Japan. Additionally, the islands, currently uninhabited, could be useful for monitoring military installations and tracking submarine movements.

Regardless of the baseline chosen for escalation, greater level of Chinese ships and planes in what Japan considers its waters and airspace in undeniable.  According to U.S. government statistics,  there were two violations of Japan’s territorial waters in 2008, none in 2009, one in 2010, 2 in 2011, and 23 in 2012.  The Japanese Air Self Defense Forces (ASDF) scrambled missions against Chinese incursions into its air defense identification zone (ADIZ) 31 times in fiscal year 2008, 38 in FY 2009, 96 in FY 2010, 156 in FY 2011, and 160 from April to December of 2012.[2]

A common theme in Chinese military and international relations journals is the need to break out of a series of island chains in which they perceive the country as encircled by the United States and its allies.   According to one, after taking control of Taiwan and in tandem with the Chinese coast, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will have configured a T-shaped battlefield from which to break out into the open ocean.[3]  Also crucial to this break-out strategy are the straits of Osumi and Miyako.  Osumi lies between the southern tip of Kagoshima Prefecture on Japan’s southernmost main island, Kyushu, and Tanegashima Island, which is also administered by Kagoshima Prefecture. Advertised in travel literature as the gateway to Japan, the epithet has less enticing connotations in the military context. The Miyako Strait is located between Miyako Island and Okinawa.  Chinese naval vessels have transited these more frequently since 2010, as well as through the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines.  In essence, the Chinese navy (PLAN) has moved out beyond the first island chain into the Philippine Sea.  Not merely showing the flag or asserting its right to be in the area, these ships have conducted manoeuvres that are clearly aimed against countering a U.S. fleet.

According to fleet intelligence of the United States Pacific Command (PACOM), PLAN is focused on training for war at sea rather than, as sometimes claimed, defense of the sea lanes: it seeks to acquire the capability to sink an enemy’s fleet. Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels, unlike the coast guards of other countries, are focused solely on harassment of other countries’ ships in support of Beijing’s claims to jurisdiction over an expanding arc encompassing the entire area of China’s contested 9-dotted line.  Search and rescue, apprehension of criminals, and other duties normally carried out by coast guards are assigned to other PRC agencies.[4]  A recent Indian experience reinforces PACOM fleet intelligence’s point.  In mid-2012, after four ships of the Indian Navy departed the Philippines for South Korea, a PLA naval vessel radioed “Welcome to the South China Sea,” and escorted the ships through the area. Sources in New Delhi interpreted the incident as clear evidence that Beijing regards the area as its to administer.[5]

These provocative actions, each one relatively small, seem designed to evoke a response that would provide Beijing with a rationalization to further its claims that the East China and South China seas. The target state is confronted with a dilemma. To respond risks escalating tensions to a degree that would justify the other side escalating still further, perhaps ending in violent confrontation over what seems a minor matter.  On the other hand, small provocations if not responded to are likely to encourage future provocations that may result in the aggressor state incorporating the contested area through gradual osmosis.

Both cooperation and confidence-building measures have been suggested as a way out of this dilemma.  Both have been tried, with disappointing results thus far. With regard to the former, efforts at resolution of competing maritime claims on the delineation of the East China Sea have been inconclusive. The two sides held eleven rounds of negotiations between October 2004 and mid-2008. In June 2008, an agreement in principle was reached on working together to develop one of the four gas fields in the East China Sea. While international media portrayed the agreement as a significant breakthrough and there was much talk of turning the disputed area into “a sea of peace and friendship,”[6] the reality was quite different. Despite reassurances by leaders of both sides that they had not surrendered their respective nations’ sovereign rights over the area, citizens were skeptical. Anger was particularly noticeable on the Chinese side. Talks continued for several months thereafter, with no resolution.

As for confidence-building measures, a senior Japanese Diet member recently suggested that a military hotline be set up between the two nations so that provocations could be more quickly responded to.[7]  While a good idea in theory, it may not work out well in practice, as then-president George W. Bush discovered when he attempted to call Chinese President Jiang Zemin after a 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter and an American reconnaissance plane: no one answered.  Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage later commented that “it seems to be the case that when very, very difficult issues arise, it is sometimes hard to get the Chinese to answer the phone.”[8]

In the past, tensions have been temporarily soothed.  But only temporarily.  Sino-Japanese relations remain fraught with dangerous implications.

June Teufel Dreyer is Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Miami. She is the author of China’s Political System and is currently researching a book on China-Japan relations. 


[1] ポジション・ペーパー:尖閣諸島をめぐる日中関係-中国による火器管制レーダーの照射を受けて- “Position Paper: Japan-China Relations Surrounding the Situation of the Senkaku Islands,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, February 7, 2013 The government already owned one of the islands; the owner of the fifth, sister to the other two owners and, like them, a Japanese citizen, indicated she did not wish to sell.

[2] The Japanese fiscal year begins in April and ends in March the following year.

[3], “島連與中國海軍向遠揚的發展”  艦 截 武器 (Jiang Yu, “The Island Chain and Far Seas Development of the Chinese Navy,” Naval Weapons, No. 12,pp. 30-31. Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, Red Star Over the Pacific and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010) pp. 53-54, interpret this essay in terms of Mahanian control of the sea.

[4]Captain James Fannel, U.S. Navy, February 1, 2012. Video here. Captain Fennell’s title is Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence and Information Operations , United States Pacific Command.

[5] Jayadeva Ranade, “China Perceives India as a Factor in South China Sea Dispute,” Daily News and Analysis [India], June 25 2012.

[6] (no author), “Profit Over Patriotism,” The Economist, June 21, 2008.

[7] Alexander Martin, “Japan Official Calls for Military Hotline With China,” Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2013.

[8] Comment to Jim Lehrer, April 13, 2001, cited in Shirley A. Kan et al, China-U.S. Aircraft Collision Incident of April 2001: Assessments and Policy Implications, U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service RL30946, Washington D.C, October 10, 2001, p. 13.


  1. Further to Professor Dreyer’s thoughtful commentary, one notes with concern the potential effects of the PRC’s troubled economy on its behavior in the security realm.

    Increasingly available evidence suggests the Chinese economy is less robust than generally believed or officially reported — and has been so for some time). Official PRC statistics routinely and miraculously meeting official growth targets being given such credence by Western observers — both government and private sector — has always been puzzling. If for no other reason, the ‘upside benefit’ for any Chinese official reporting other than positive economic results in line with official targets is hard to discern. Presumably, senior Chinese leaders have some understanding of the actual situation.

    A growing economy covers up a lot of problems. A declining one does not. Add in maddeningly intractable corruption, huge wealth imbalances, non-performing loans on a ‘bubble era’ Japan scale, and hints of astonishing capital flight over the years, and one might fairly anticipate more aggressive and uncompromising behavior towards China’s neighbors, not least as a diversionary tactic.

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