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 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.
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