Will Rising Tensions in the South China Sea Spill Over into the East China Sea?


Tensions have flared between China and Vietnam over offshore oil exploration activities around the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. In May 2014 Vietnam lodged a protest against Chinese violations of Vietnam’s resource interests; in response, armed Chinese patrol boats have been ramming into and firing water cannons at Vietnamese ships, triggering violent anti-Chinese riots in Vietnamese cities that have resulted in casualties. 

Furthermore, on May 24 Su-27 fighter jets of the Chinese Air Force came provocatively close to planes belonging to Japan’s Air and Maritime Self-Defense Forces flying on surveillance missions near the Japan-China midline in the East China Sea. 

For China, the East China Sea—where it claims the Japanese-held Senkaku Islands—is as strategically important as the South China Sea, where it has territorial disputes over the Paracel and Spratly Islands with Vietnam, the Philippines, and other states. 

At a glance, Beijing appears to be using the same highhanded tactics to “bully” its neighbors in both areas. But a closer look reveals a clearly and strategically differentiated approach toward each country. This point must be fully taken into account in crafting an effective China policy.  

Rule-Based Collisions

China Coast Guard vessels, including armed patrol ships, have been firing water cannons and ramming into Vietnamese government boats around the Paracel Islands. Such rough play has not yet been seen in the East China Sea against Japanese vessels. 

The media, especially in Japan, jumped on these Chinese actions, denouncing them as “overheated” and dangerous conduct that could “touch off a war.” A sober analysis shows, though, that they are not as reckless as they seem. In fact, the Chinese vessels have refrained from unpermitted conduct and appear to be acting in accordance with a plan to keep the situation under control.  

The banner photo for this article, for example, shows that the gun on the deck of the China Coast Guard ship is pointed upward—in keeping with the maritime communications agreement reached on April 22 at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in Qingdao, attended by top naval officials from 21 west Pacific countries. The agreement, called the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, outlines conduct to be avoided at sea, such as simulating an attack. 

A “simulated attack” includes actions that could accidentally trigger a conflict, such as aiming guns, missiles, or fire-control radar at another country’s vessels and making low-altitude flights. China, despite its highhanded tactics, appears to be following a bare minimum of international rules to avoid an unnecessary escalation of tensions. This is perhaps analogous to Major League baseball managers arguing an umpire’s call with all the abusive verbal and body language allowed, while being sure to keep both hands behind their back.  

So there is a method to China’s “madness” in the South China Sea. The reason the clashes with Vietnam seem far more violent than those with Japan is not just because the standoff in the South China Sea is more serious but also because Chinese government and military officials, no doubt, have an understanding of the relative risks in the South and East China Seas. 

The Need to Act Tough

The driving force for the China of today is not Maoist ideology but nationalistic pride, as evidenced by the recognition by the Communist government and the military that the biggest threat to stability is an explosion of popular discontent in the guise of nationalism. The last thing the authorities want to see is a venting of frustration over increasingly entrenched economic disparities—in the guise of anti-Japanese riots or other demonstrations of “patriotism”—that could destabilize the current regime. 

Maintaining a hard-line posture toward Japan and countries around the South China Sea is thus of pivotal importance for the party and the military. The need to avoid criticism of weak-kneed diplomacy from domestic nationalists is especially acute now, as June 4 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.  

Additional pressure is coming from the recent spike in terrorist attacks by Uighur separatists, which authorities fear could cause unrest throughout the country. The tough stance in the South China Sea can be seen as an attempt to divert people’s attention from terrorism. 

The Trauma of Tiananmen

There is a clear difference, though, in Beijing’s tough stance toward Japan on the one hand and that toward Vietnam on the other. China has not sent a single armed patrol boat to the Senkakus, unlike the flotilla of such ships dispatched to the South China Sea. All patrol boats were placed under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard following a reorganization of China’s maritime law enforcement agencies in July 2013, but those deployed in the East China Sea are unarmed. Strictly speaking, some of its older boats formerly belonging to the China Fisheries Law Enforcement Command are fitted with two 23-millimeter World War II–type machine guns, but they are wrapped in canvass and tied with ropes, no doubt in an attempt to pass them off as being without arms. 

China has repeatedly been invading Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus in recent years to demonstrate its claims to the islands, but these incursions have been kept to a scope and have employed methods designed not to alarm the United States. This is the reason military ships and aircraft have not been deployed; even when a Chinese frigate locked its fire-control radar on a Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer in January 2013, it was not in the vicinity of the Senkakus but some 120 kilometers north of the islands. 

Why the caution in the East China Sea? The reason is quite obvious. Any clash near the Senkakus could escalate into a war not just with Japan but also with the United States. This would cause an immediate outflow of foreign capital, resulting in an economic crisis far more serious than in the aftermath of the June 1989 Tiananmen incident. This is something Beijing is anxious to avoid. 

Preventing Capital Flight

So for China, aggressive behavior around the Senkakus can be very risky. This is why it has long called for the “shelving” of the territorial issue with Japan. Tokyo has not been receptive to this proposal, though, since it does not recognize Beijing’s claims in the first place. My take on China’s unilateral establishment of an air-defense identification zone in November 2013 covering the East China Sea is that it was an attempt, albeit forced, to create a de facto “shelved” state of affairs. 

An overlapping ADIZ above the Senkakus would certainly heighten the risk of a military clash with Japan. China could then propose a mechanism to mitigate such risks, perhaps calling for self-restraint in the deployment of government or military ships and aircraft around the islands. Should Japan and the United States agree to such an arrangement, it would, in essence, lead to a “shelving” of the issue and recognition of China’s position on the Senkaku dispute. 

China’s behavior toward Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea has not been as restrained. Beijing knows that even if its patrol ships collide with foreign vessels there, with its warships and combat aircraft lurking in the wings, there is little likelihood of triggering a large-scale war—and hence of inducing capital flight from China. 

Following the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 and repeated clashes at sea, China and Vietnam have made efforts to mend their relations and deepen their economic ties. Even though ties have once again become acrimonious, both countries understand that differences can be patched up in a similar manner. 

And while nationalistic sentiments have flared in Vietnam, leading to violent anti-China protests, I would not be surprised if Beijing had anticipated such a reaction from the outset. No matter how sour Japan-China relations get, I cannot imagine that Japanese protesters would seek to set fire to the Chinese embassy in Tokyo. But China knows—from its long historical ties with Vietnam—that such reaction would not be unthinkable in Hanoi. 

Trust in the SDF?

Given the current escalation of tensions, the situation near the Senkakus or elsewhere around Japan could, of course, get out of hand, requiring the deployment of the Self-Defense Forces or even US troops. The Chinese side is averse to such a scenario and is, for the moment, strictly controlling the behavior of its ships and aircraft. 

The biggest crisis since the Japanese government’s purchase of the Senkaku Islands from a private landowner in September 2012 was the aiming of fire-control radar at an MSDF ship in January 2013. While this appears to be another case of bullying by Beijing, it ironically demonstrates the trust the People’s Liberation Army has in the SDF. 

The first radar incident occurred on January 19, 2013, some 120 kilometers north of the Senkakus. A 4,000-ton Chinese frigate and 6,000-ton MSDF destroyer were sailing 28 kilometers apart when weapons-targeting radar was directed at an MSDF helicopter monitoring the frigate’s activities. 

The MSDF destroyer immediately came to within three kilometers of the frigate to confirm its reaction. Were the Chinese side intent on provocation, it would no doubt have directed fire-control radar repeatedly or aimed its cannons at the Japanese ship, perhaps even firing warning shots. The frigate, though, took no further action until 11 days later, when on January 30 it again directed fire-control radar on one occasion at the destroyer. There has been no additional provocation since then. 

Japanese commentators, including former MSDF officers, have suggested that Chinese crewmen were perhaps acting “out of control,” but I seriously doubt that a reckless crew would refrain from taking additional action for 11 days. Rather, one should view the radar incident as having been a carefully controlled act. 

Civilian Control 

The 2012 report on Chinese security issued by Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies notes at length that the PLA is placed strictly under civilian control (under the jurisdiction of the Central Military Commission) to prevent the army from revolting against the Communist Party. A political commissar of the same rank as the commander is assigned to each company or battleship, and military operations cannot be taken without the commissar’s signature.  

The radar initially directed at the MSDF helicopter was probably in response to the helicopter’s monitoring activities, in accordance with predetermined rules of engagement (ROE). What was probably unanticipated, though, was the approach of the MSDF destroyer; the crew had no authority to take any additional action, and it required 11 days for the Central Military Commission to give its go-ahead for the frigate to lock on its weapons-targeting radar for the second time. 

From another vantage point, one might say that the “simulated attack” of directing fire-control radar at the MSDF was undertaken precisely because China knew that Japan would not be panicked into a knee-jerk response. The MSDF is, alongside the US Navy, one of the world’s most disciplined maritime forces, and it is unlikely to strike back because of a single radar “attack.” It has the capacity to gain a full grasp of the situation and circumvent a conflict even as it prepared to retaliate. It cannot be provoked into firing its cannons in response to a single locking of the fire-control radar. Knowing this, the Chinese Navy may very well have ordered the aiming of the radar—which would surely be widely reported by the media—to demonstrate to the Chinese public that Beijing is not weak-kneed toward Japan. 

The incident also showed that China has adequate mechanisms to prevent tensions from escalating out of control in waters around Japan. Beijing’s hard-line position toward Japan is strategically differentiated from that taken toward other countries, and perhaps there is a need for Japan to gain a fuller appreciation of the signals China is sending and to shape its foreign policy accordingly. 

(Banner photo: A China Coast Guard patrol boat rams into a Vietnamese vessel in the South China Sea. The photo was made available by the Vietnamese government. Note that the gun on the foredeck is not aimed at the Vietnamese ship. © Jiji Press.) 

Japan China South China Sea East China Sea Senkaku Islands SDF Vietnam PLA Paracel Islands Spratly Islands China Coast Guard