East China Sea Tensions Rise Over Chinese Ships, Planes

  • Japan Foreign Ministry protests approach by China naval ship
  • Survey shows continued suspicion between China, Japan

A string of incidents in and over the East China Sea points to renewed tensions between Japan and China over territory, just as a new survey underlines the animosity between Asia’s two largest economies.

QuickTake Territorial Disputes

Japan’s vice foreign minister Akitaka Saiki summoned Chinese ambassador Cheng Yonghua in the early hours of Thursday after a Chinese frigate entered the "contiguous zone" just outside Japan-administered waters surrounding contested islands. No Chinese naval vessel has previously been observed there.

"This is a one-sided act that increases tensions," Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani told reporters. "I am seriously concerned", he said, according to Kyodo News.

China’s defense ministry said it was aware of the reports. "The Diaoyu Islands are China’s inherent territory,” it said in a statement on its website, using China’s name for the islands. “It is legitimate and legal for Chinese vessels to sail in waters within our own jurisdiction. Other countries have no right to make carping remarks.”

The previous day, three Chinese coastguard vessels entered what Japan regards as its territorial waters. Meanwhile, the U.S. said Chinese fighter planes unsafely intercepted a reconnaissance flight in international airspace over the East China Sea, CNN reported. China’s foreign ministry said the U.S. was deliberately hyping the jet encounter.

A contiguous zone is an area of water that extends as far as 24 nautical miles out from territorial seas. While considered international waters, countries claiming such a zone exercise control over the area for various purposes including customs and sanitation.

Court Ruling

Japan and China are embroiled in a dispute over uninhabited islets located near Taiwan, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, with the Japanese government buying three of them in 2012 from a private landowner, leading to a rise in tensions.

While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has succeeded in calming the mood enough to hold two summits with President Xi Jinping, the recent incidents risk reigniting frictions.

Tensions over territory are rising in Asia before an international court ruling on a case brought by the Philippines over a separate territorial dispute between China and other nations in the South China Sea, which could affect China’s behavior in waters through which more than $5 trillion of trade passes each year.

China has said it doesn’t recognize the jurisdiction of the Hague tribunal and won’t abide by an unfavorable ruling.

Russian Ships

Rather than deliberately provoking Japan, the Chinese ship may have been tailing three Russian naval vessels that were reported to have sailed through the zone at the same time, according to retired major-general Ikuo Kayahara, an emeritus professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo.

"There’s no need for China to exacerbate the problem over the East China Sea now," Kayahara said. "They’ve already said they won’t respect the verdict, so why would they send out warships and risk criticism for disturbing the order?"

For an earlier story on the behavior of Chinese fighter pilots, click here

Japan has used its platform as host of the Group of Seven meetings this year to criticize China, its biggest trading partner. G-7 foreign ministers issued a statement expressing opposition to any "intimidating, coercive or provocative" actions in the East China Sea and South China Sea, and calling on all parties to act in accordance with international law. China reacted with anger.

China may be reacting in advance to a naval exercise involving Japan, the U.S. and India to be held in late June in the vicinity of Okinawa, according to Ni Lexiong, director of the Sea Power and Defense Policy Research Institute at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. "China overall is playing a tit-for-tat interaction with U.S. and Japan," he said.

The developments come as a survey of five Asian nations shows continuing ill feeling between China and Japan, despite growing opportunities to interact through business and tourism.

A majority of Chinese see Japan as the most likely nation to start a conflict in Asia, according to a survey conducted by the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney published this month. Fifty-six percent of Chinese respondents picked Japan as the most likely to initiate hostilities, compared with only 9 percent who picked North Korea.

Thirty-seven percent of Japanese respondents picked China as the most likely instigator, compared with 50 percent who chose North Korea. The survey, which also covered South Korea, Australia, Indonesia and the U.S., found that the Japanese were by far the most likely to characterize China as "doing much more harm than good" in the region.

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