Chinese ships near Diaoyu Islands stoke Japan’s fears of Beijing vs Manila South China Sea-style clash

As Beijing continues to ramp up its claims to land, sea and airspace in the East China Sea, Japan is bracing for confrontations similar to those faced by the Philippines in the South China Sea, analysts said. Among the incidents, Philippine supply vessels were hit by the Chinese coastguard’s water cannons while Filipino fishing boats were also harassed in recent months.

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Analysts believe that China’s ultimate goal is to weaken the international perception of Japanese sovereignty over the Diaoyus, which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands, and seize them eventually. The uninhabited archipelago to the north of Okinawa has been controlled by Japan since 1972.

The islands fall within China’s self-proclaimed ADIZ, which has increasingly been patrolled by Chinese warships. Photos published in the Yomiuri newspaper on January 28 show a Jiangkai II-class guided missile frigate in waters near the islands.

While Japan is better equipped to resist Chinese aggression than the Philippines, Tokyo is “extremely concerned” over the possibility of things escalating to the point that water cannons or other weapons could be used, according to an analyst with the National Institute of Defence Studies (NIDS).

“Recently, Chinese coastguard vessels have been frequently chasing Japanese fishing boats in waters around the Senkakus,” said Masafumi Iida, a China expert at NIDS. “That is just one of the escalatory actions that China has been taking as it attempts to assume jurisdiction.

Ships of China’s marine surveillance unit and Japan’s coastguard sail side by side near the Diaoyu Islands in 2012. Photo: AP

“Japan cannot accept that claim against its waters and this is a clear violation of Japanese territoriality over the Senkakus,” he told This Week in Asia.

Beijing has, for more than a decade, been stepping up its claims of sovereignty over the islands. It has undertaken actions such as repeated coastguard intrusions into the waters around the islands as well as drone flights. China’s air and maritime presence in the area is becoming larger and more frequent, Iida said.

On Monday, a Japanese coastguard vessel discovered a large Chinese buoy drifting inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea. The buoy, around 5 metres in diameter, bore the words “China ocean observation” and was found 170km north of the disputed islands.

In July last year, a larger Chinese buoy was discovered tethered some 80km northwest of the islands, prompting a diplomatic protest from China. The Japanese coastguard has warned shipping lines to be aware of additional buoys and the government has requested that they be removed by China but Beijing has yet to respond, the Yomiuri reported.

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Stephen Nagy, a professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University, said China’s actions around the islands were partly in response to Japan’s outreach efforts involving other Asian countries.

“Japan has been coordinating more on planning over the Taiwan Strait, providing aid to nations in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, and China’s tactic is to amplify and increase the pressure around the Senkakus to make Japan rethink where its priorities should lie,” said Nagy.

Pointing to comments by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his January 1 address that Chinese ships would be in the waters around the islands every day over the coming year, Nagy said Beijing is trying to put pressure on Japan to “step back” over the Taiwan issue

While the Chinese-declared ADIZ issue poses a significant challenge for Tokyo, Japanese and American civilian planes will continue to fly through the area in the same way as how the US conducts “freedom of navigation” operations through the South China Sea, Nagy said.

A Japanese Self-Defence Force P-3C Orion surveillance plane flies over the disputed islands in 2011. Photo: AP

But if airlines from other Asian nations were to contact Chinese air traffic controllers before they enter the ADIZ, it would be a further sign that Japan is not exercising administrative control over its airspace, according to Nagy.

China’s incremental moves in the East China Sea are likely to escalate and could be similar to its actions against Philippine vessels in the South China Sea in recent months, Nagy said, noting that Beijing declared in 2021 that its coastguard vessels had the right to use force in what it considers as its domestic waters.

“We would be veering very much into escalation at that point,” Nagy said. “If Japan’s Self-Defence Forces were used to push back against the Chinese coastguard, it would be viewed in Beijing as an escalation and we could very easily move into a tit-for-tat conflict.”

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