6 Chinese government patrol vessels entered and withdrew from Japanese territory around the Senkaku Islands on Friday, with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Fisheries Agency ‘threatening’ to send two more perhaps on Sunday. The English-language reporting on this is framing the Chinese action as being a reaction to Japan’s recent “nationalization” of the Senkaku Islands. While rhetorically this is the case, only two weeks ago this action was seemingly considered acceptable to the Chinese – the main thing they wanted to avoid was Ishihara Shintaro acquiring the islands and building a wildlife sanctuary or some other such facilities. There were signals from the Chinese side that there was a desire to return to the pre-2010 status quo. Something has changed, and it is hard to believe that this is not strongly related to the disappearance of Xi Jinping (for health reasons or otherwise), division at the top of the CCP over the political transition, the economy and potential financial instability, and all of the political intrigues associated with these factors.
However it is also hard to believe that this is merely a distraction, or a sign of rogue agencies and internal dissent. The Chinese government has not only sent a record high number of official government vessels on incursions into the waters around the Senkakus, but has also submitted to the UN the coordinates and the baseline for its claim, something they have hesitated to do before hand. As one government official said:
The baselines of the Diaoyu Islands are delimited in accordance with the 17 base points of China’s territorial sea selected from them, Deng [Zhonghua, head of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs with the Foreign Ministry] said, adding that China’s territorial sea is the extension of 12 nautical miles from these baselines toward the ocean.
Deng suggested that, after the delimiting of these baselines, the Chinese government will promote the administration of the Diaoyu Islands steadily according to the actual situation.
China has accumulated rich experience on the administration of the territorial sea and the contiguous zone in the past several decades and formulated a mechanism, he said.
In the next stage, China will administrate the Diaoyu Islands according to Chinese and international law, such as by providing weather forecasting and maritime environment forecasting for the islands and their surrounding waters, which has been done since Tuesday; depicting a detailed chart of the Diaoyu Islands and their adjacent waters so as to facilitate vessels passing by the area, said the director-general.
It is hard this time around to imagine that the Japanese will not respond by strengthening administration over the Senkakus, or will even want to take a concilliatory approach. Noda will be feeling somewhat deceived by the Chinese government, and a weak response would be fatal for his administration, which was looking to recover some (limited) support. Furthermore, it seems that we are on the precipice of the Chinese government going beyond the contestation of territorial sovereignty to the contestation of effective control, a considerably more provocative act from the point of view of international norms. This should concern the Japanese.
To be sure, the Japanese Coast Guard has noted that the use of force is out of the question (日) at this point. The UNCLOS specifies that force cannot be used against official state vessels merely for entering into territorial waters if they are not conducting activities “prejudicial to the peace.” This is why the Chinese approach of using non-military maritime agencies has been so difficult to manage – the only choice the Japanese Coast Guard currently has is to sail side by side and continuously ask the vessels to the leave.
However, the question will then be what will Noda do after the current round of incursions is over? Also, will he be merely able to deport activists from Hong Kong (日) back instead of actually prosecuting them for landing on the Senkakus if they set sail again later this year? He will be in a difficult spot. The political timing could also not be worse from his point of view – this will give considerable coverage to the LDP presidential election where the five candidates will surely try to out do each other in terms of who is going to be “toughest” on China, likely bringing in to the equation all sorts of issues irrelevant to the resolution of territorial issues(Yasukuni etc).
This raises a broader question. First of all, are the US and China having a competition to see how many Japanese PMs they can unseat through the creation of international issues? China may go 2-1 up. Secondly and related, this shows how Japan’s political system and the ease of turnover of PMs is increasingly becoming a threat to the rational exercise of Japan’s foreign policy. If every time there is a difficult foreign policy issue to be resolved (and most of them are) the PM has to step down, or, fearing this eventuality, doubles down on a policy preference they would otherwise want to avoid, it will be harder for foreign policy to be consistent over time.
Also, if every time there is an issue in Chinese domestic politics the Japanese government has to adapt its foreign policy outlook – well one can imagine the government’s and the public’s patience will wear thin. It is perhaps a reflection of how much domestic politics matter in China, and how self-involved the Chinese political establishment is, that they are unaware of this issue. Or is there no intention to have stable relations in the first place?