Tensions in Japan-China Relations over the East China Sea Could Exacerbate in Coming Years

Tensions in Japan-China Relations over the East China Sea Could Exacerbate in Coming Years

For long, Japan-China relations have largely been acrimonious due to historical and territorial factors. Despite strong economic ‘bonhomie’, the two countries have failed to resolve these disputes amicably. The situation could deteriorate further in coming months following the release of Japan’s latest Defense White Paper expressing strong concern over China’s ‘coercive’ maritime advances in the East and South China Seas. The White Paper expresses strong opposition to the ongoing construction of new gas fields by the Chinese near the median line between China and Japan in the East China Sea region. These constructions have raised strong economic and security concerns within Japan. On the other hand, China has taken few steps to assuage Japanese concerns while maintaining a critical stance on Japan’s White Paper.  Such developments could widen the gulf between the two countries further.

On July 21, the Japanese Cabinet approved the defense white paper for 2015. The paper titled “The Defense of Japan 2015” notes that intrusions by Chinese vessels in disputed waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea have become routine operation. The report also claims that in both the East China and South China Sea, China continues to “show an uncompromising stance toward realizing its unilateral claims.” Moreover, it terms China’s continued activities in those two regions as “high-handed” to alter the status quo by force.

On July 22, the Japanese government released photos and maps revealing China’s construction of offshore structures related to gas fields in the East China Sea. In addition to the photos, the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s website also features a map depicting the locations of those structures along with the photos. The Japanese government has reportedly confirmed sixteen such structures so far. Of those, twelve have been discovered since June 2013. At present all these platforms are reportedly equipped with heliports and large cranes.

On July 22, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed the Japanese government’s displeasure over the construction of these offshore structures. Japan views the construction as a unilateral move by China that constitutes a clear violation of the 2008 agreement between Japan and China on joint gas field development in said region. In that agreement, both countries agreed to “cooperate, without prejudice to their legal positions, during the transitional period pending agreement on the delimitation” of the sea boundary.

With regards to the oil fields in the East China Sea, economic and security factors have heightened Japanese tension. On the economic front, some experts point out that while China‘s offshore structures are on the Chinese side of the median line, it could eventually connect them with the oil deposits on the Japanese side beneath waters. In such case, China would be able to siphon off gas from the Japanese side. If China continues to construct the oil-related structures in the East China Sea unabated, it could certainly have an adverse impact on the Japanese economy in the long run.

On the security front, some observers argue that if Sino-Japanese tensions escalate, Beijing could convert the offshore structures in the East China Sea to military facilities. This could pose a serious security threat to Japan. It should be noted that even though China unilaterally established an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in November 2013, the radars installed in mainland China are reportedly not yet fully effective in covering the entire region. To deal with that loophole, China might choose to utilize the offshore structures as military bases by equipping them with air defense radar systems and heliports for reconnaissance helicopters.

So far China does not seem to have taken any step in mitigating Japan’s growing concerns over the ongoing construction in the East China Sea. China’s stance is to some extent understandable given that so far, China’s construction remains on its side of the median line between Japan and China. However, China has responded critically to Japan’s latest Defense White Paper, arguing that the paper is “artificially creating tensions” and “stirring up fears about China’s military threats.”

In the short run, the ongoing developments in the East China Sea might not have serious repercussions on Japan-China relations. However, the scenario may change dramatically once Japan’s new security bills come into force in September this year. Those bills aim at enabling Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defense in a limited manner. They will also expand the role of the Japanese Self Defense Force (SDF) by enabling the latter i) to provide rear area logistical support to friendly countries, and ii) to respond to ‘grey zone’ infringements of Japanese territorial waters as well as airspace short of an armed attack. On July 28, during deliberation on the said bills, Prime Minister Abe signaled that the enactment of the new security laws would pave the way for the Japanese government in enhancing the SDF’s capability to deal with Chinese vessels’ intrusions near the Senkaku islands. In that case, the possibility of armed confrontation between the militaries and coast guards of the two countries could no longer be denied. Moreover, the two countries’ growing energy needs could eventually compel them to resolve their ongoing dispute over energy resources of East China Sea through use of force. Under the circumstances, tensions in Japan-China relations could exacerbate in the coming years.


Dr. Pranamita Baruah is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, George Washington University, Washington DC.