Beijing-Tokyo distrust lingers as record number of Chinese ships seen near Diaoyu Islands

Julian Ryall

A record 998 Chinese government ships have been identified in waters close to disputed Japanese-held islands in the East China Sea in the first 11 months of the year, underlining the lingering distrust that exists between Tokyo and Beijing despite what appear to be improved bilateral relations.

The vessels were confirmed to be operating within the contiguous zone around the Diaoyu Islands – which Japan controls and knows as the Senkaku Islands – from January 1 to November 29, the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper reported.

That figure is up sharply from 2013, when there were a record 819 incursions into the contiguous zone, the 22km buffer zone that extends from the 22km-wide band of territorial waters immediately around the islands.

There were 615 Chinese government vessels recorded entering the contiguous zone in the first 11 months of 2018, and there were hopes the figure would once again decline as ties between the two governments warmed.

Explained: Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping declared a “new era of Japan-China relations” at the G20 summit in Osaka in June. The two countries have also agreed to set up a military hotline to avert accidental clashes, and their naval forces took part in their first joint exercises in eight years in October. The visit by Xi scheduled for next spring is being portrayed as the clearest evidence yet of the improved relationship.

A decline in intrusions into waters around the islands has not happened, however, and the Japan Coast Guard has reported that at least one Chinese vessel entered the zone every day between April 12 and June 14 this year, while 114 ships entered Japanese territorial waters in the first 11 months of the year.

Abe and Xi are “handling the issue quite carefully and both governments are trying hard to make sure it does not get out of hand”, said Akitoshi Miyashita, a professor of international relations at Tokyo International University.

“Despite the rhetoric, both sides are trying not to provoke the other and it is clear that Abe is trying not to overreact in this situation,” he said.

A 2012 picture of the islands. Photo: Kyodo

However, Miyashita said there was undoubtedly deep concern in Tokyo at the increased presence of Chinese ships so close to the islands.

“Japan has also increased the number of patrol boats and aircraft that it operates in the region as well because of that concern, but I also believe there is a tacit understanding in both governments that these are acceptable actions – and that [stand-off] will remain until someone from either side actually sets foot on the islands,” he said. “That would cross a line.”

Japan plans new police unit to guard Diaoyu islands

The other potential flashpoint, Miyashita suggested, would be an accidental collision between the vessels milling about off the islands. This “could trigger a real problem because it would be hard to control the emotions of people on both sides if shooting were to break out as it would be seen as a direct attack”.

Ties between Beijing and Tokyo have been frosty since 2010, when a Chinese fisherman was arrested for refusing to leave waters around the island. But while relations have thawed in recent times, neither side has given up its claim to sovereignty over the islands, points out Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University.

“This suggests that China is out to test Japan’s defence capabilities and to also demonstrate that Tokyo is not able to exercise complete control over islands that it claims are its sovereign territory, which would create the opportunity to argue that point in an international court,” he said.

“It is clear that there are some structural issues lingering between the two countries despite the warming of the relationship.”

It is clear that there are some structural issues lingering between the two countries despite the warming of the relationship

Stephen Nagy, International Christian University

Nagy believes Xi will come to Japan next year anticipating agreements on a number of trade issues and shared infrastructure investment in third countries, as well as at least discussing security issues at a time when Washington’s influence on and presence in the region are on the wane.

But the international relations professor believes Xi will be disappointed.

“Japan’s concerns are too deep-seated,” Nagy said. “Tokyo is looking at the South China Sea and then the Senkaku Islands and the government here is concerned. And then they are looking at what is going on in Hong Kong and while that does not impact Japan directly, there is certainly disquiet among policymakers that China is the neighbour that they have.”

The Japan Coast Guard already has 14 large patrol boats tasked with patrolling waters around the islands, and two more vessels are due to go into service there early next year.

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