Japan Coast Guard vessel PS206 Houou sails in front of Uotsuri island, one of the disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea August 18, 2013.
Ruairidh Villar / Reuters

Since September 2012, the de facto dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over islands in the East China Sea has become unprecedentedly unstable. China is conducting more military and paramilitary operations in the surrounding waters and airspace than ever, and Japan is scrambling more fighter jets than at any time since record-keeping began in 1958. By 2014, Chinese Major General Zhu Chenghu said, “the slightest carelessness could spark an unintended conflict” between the world’s second- and third-largest economies. A military conflict between China and Japan would have catastrophic consequences and would almost certainly involve the U.S. military.

After a chilly, abbreviated November 2014 summit between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping—the first ever meeting between the two leaders—political relations have begun to thaw. But top-level political dialogue, although no longer frozen, remains on thin ice. More important, in the East China Sea things didn’t get much better. Chinese government ships continue to enter Japan’s de facto territorial waters. For its part, Tokyo shows no signs of backing down, scrambling fighters daily to intercept approaching Chinese planes. Meanwhile, public opinion polls record Sino-Japanese acrimony at unprecedented highs.

While neither side wants a conflict, in this volatile reality of increasingly crowded waters and airspace, the risk that a miscalculation or accident could escalate into a major crisis is far too high for comfort.

Indeed, the reality is sobering: institutional deficiencies undermine each government’s ability to rapidly and effectively coordinate internally in the event of a crisis. Worse yet, despite seven years of negotiations, Tokyo and Beijing have failed to formally agree to—much less implement reliably—any bilateral crisis management mechanism. In short, the ability of China or Japan to prevent a low-level incident from escalating to a full-blown crisis is questionable. To ameliorate the risk of an avoidable catastrophe in the East China Sea, then, true statesmanship must be matched with expeditious institutional reforms on both sides.

It isn’t as if China and Japan want to go to war over a few islands. In 2007, both governments pledged to turn the East China Sea into a “Sea of Peace, Cooperation, and Friendship.” Prior to the downturn in relations in September 2012, they had also held high-level maritime consultations and bilateral talks on a maritime communication mechanism. New rounds were held this past January. March 19 marked the first bilateral security dialogue in four years, wherein Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao and Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama discussed implementation of a hot line between defense authorities to avoid unintended clashes in the air and at sea.

While talk is good, and certainly not cheap, no timetable for implementation of any concrete crisis management mechanisms has been set. Yet realities in the air and waters surrounding the islands remain volatile and demand immediate and substantive progress on firebreaks to contain escalation in the event of an incident. Diplomatic cooperation and robust, depoliticized communication mechanisms are vital and needed urgently.

MARKING TERRITORY

The Japanese government’s September 2012 “nationalization” of three of the five Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands) kicked off the latest round of tensions. (Ironically, Japan’s decision was actually designed to reduce tensions in the East China Sea by preempting far more provocative moves by Tokyo’s previous governor, Shintaro Ishihara, who threatened to have the city buy the islands in 2012.) Japan had effectively administered the islands for decades, but in the wake of this purchase, China decided to more actively assert its claim by pursuing shared administrative control. To this end, Beijing is conducting more military and paramilitary operations in the surrounding waters and airspace than ever, including sending government ships within the 12-nautical-mile zone marking Japan’s jurisdiction. The net result? An upsurge in the chance that an accidental incident could escalate—be it an unintended collision in the air or water or a shot fired after either side judges the other to have crossed a red line.

In January 2013, a Chinese Jiangwei-II frigate reportedly locked its sights on Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) destroyer Yudachi using its fire-control radar—putting the Chinese ship one step short of firing on the Japanese vessel. The risk of escalation during this event was high; the JMSDF commanding officer would face strong incentives to respond as a defensive measure—an act that would have immediately launched a dangerous game of chicken. In this instance, the Japanese destroyer chose not to respond in kind. Regrettably, this incident was reportedly not an isolated act: eleven days earlier, a different Chinese frigate had done the same to a JMSDF helicopter.

Meanwhile, dangerous encounters have also occurred in the air. On two separate occasions in 2014, Chinese Su-27 fighter aircraft approached within 200 feet of Japanese military reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace. Though no collision occurred, these incidents echo the fatal and easily avoidable 2001 Hainan Island incident between China and the United States, which triggered a tense, ten-day diplomatic standoff between Washington and Beijing.

China’s attempts to overturn the status quo have created crowded waters and airspace surrounding the islands, thus increasing the risk of a miscalculation or unintended collision, either of which could escalate. Beijing is now sending Chinese coast guard vessels into Japan’s de facto territorial waters, actively challenging Tokyo’s decades-old effective administration of the islands. Such entrances by official Chinese government ships have surged from a total of nine in 31 years to more than 350 instances between September 2012 and February 2015 alone.

And in the air, between 2009 and late 2013, Japanese emergency scrambles against approaching Chinese planes increased from less than one per week (roughly 40 per year) to nearly ten per week (more than 400). In November 2013, Tokyo cried foul after Beijing’s unilateral announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a large area of the East China Sea—including the contested islands and nearly half of Japan’s own, decades-old ADIZ—and criticized China’s nonstandard description of its ADIZ as tantamount to a declaration of territorial airspace. The increase in air intercepts continues today: in the last quarter of 2014, JMSDF scrambles against Chinese planes reached their highest levels since record-keeping began in 1958.

While the likelihood of any single encounter escalating to a military conflict is low, the drastic increase of encounters since September 2012 increases overall risk significantly.

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN

An unintended clash between China and Japan that precipitated a military crisis would be a disaster. Eurasia Group political risk expert Ian Bremmer deemed it the world’s greatest geopolitical danger of 2014. Even Chinese and Japanese military leaders express concerns about the risks of crisis escalation.

Overwrought or not, these are serious concerns. It would appear obvious that the two sides have a shared interest in ensuring that robust emergency communication channels exist and remain open regardless of political winds. Yet after September 2012, precisely when the risk of a crisis was peaking, China punished Japan by unilaterally shutting down diplomatic channels, including even the negotiations over a mechanism to manage maritime crises. Tokyo had been pushing for the creation of a hot line since 2007, and negotiations had been on the verge of culminating in summer 2012. Yet Beijing suspended high-level talks for more than two years—during which many of the aforementioned close encounters occurred.

As Sino-Japanese relations began to thaw following the November 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Beijing finally agreed to resume working-level talks on a maritime communication mechanism with Tokyo and has placed an aerial component on the table as well. The first round of the restarted meetings between China and Japan took place this past January, and the first bilateral security dialogue in four years occurred just last week.

Better late than never. But restarting talks is just a first step down a long road. Next would come an actual signed agreement with effective and credible implementation. In the interim, aerial crisis management is most important. Effective operationalization of the Sea-Air Contact Mechanism proposed in January 2015 would be particularly encouraging. Components reportedly under negotiation include a hot line between defense authorities, annual meetings, and a common radio frequency for ship and aircraft communications.

Although what’s needed is obvious, political will remains in doubt. China’s continued deployments and apparent disagreements about the statements that each government has already made remain key obstacles. Furthermore, Beijing may now be returning to the negotiating table only because it believes its actions have established a “new normal” of shared administrative control. This suggests that from its perspective, establishing bilateral crisis management mechanisms may be a tool primarily for extracting Japanese concessions, rather than inherently valuable for ensuring stability in the East China Sea. Since recognition of a dispute remains a nonstarter in Tokyo, actual implementation of a hot line may therefore continue to be out of reach.

Furthermore, hot lines are only as good as their use in practice. Here, Beijing’s track record also urges caution: at the time of the 2001 Hainan Island incident, the United States and China had similar mechanisms in place, but Beijing ignored former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s phone calls for two days. Further, any proposed annual meetings will only be as useful as they are substantive. For years, the U.S.-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement remained a talk shop where Beijing largely restated its opposition to mainstream views of international law.

The cost of any military conflict between China and Japan would be immense, and neither side wants a war. Yet even if the probability of any single encounter resulting in an incident remains low, the frequency of plane and ship traffic in the region increases the likelihood of an incident that could escalate to a military crisis if not managed rapidly and effectively by both sides. To this day, despite seven years of negotiations, the two sides still lack robust bilateral crisis management mechanisms.

In the stormy waters and airspace of the East China Sea, hope is not a strategy. Fail-safes and firebreaks are needed now to ensure that a war that no one wants, never erupts. 

  • ADAM P. LIFF is Assistant Professor of East Asian International Relations at Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program, and Associate in Research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies.
  • ANDREW S. ERICKSON is an Associate Professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College and an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.
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