Crowding the Waters

The Need for Crisis Management in the East China Sea

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

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