The Many Faces of Japan-China Relations

Maritime Concerns and the Future of Sino-Japanese Relations


Amid continued tension over the Senkaku Islands, Chinese vessels passing through waters around the Ryūkyū Islands have become a new focus of concern for Japanese regional security. Kōda Yōji, a retired vice admiral of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, looks at the present state of Sino-Japanese relations and considers ways of building trust between the two countries.

Over the last few years, China’s moves to build up its navy and exert a stronger maritime presence have heightened stability concerns in the Asia-Pacific region. Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, which run contrary to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and other international norms, and intensified friction with Japan over the Senkaku Islands have become top regional issues.

China is attempting to alter the current balance of power in the region by applying an “anti-access and area denial” (A2/AD) strategy designed to exclude American military influence around Chinese territorial waters and in the western Pacific Ocean.(*1) The United States has reacted by rebalancing its diplomatic and defensive strategies toward the Asia-Pacific region. In this context, Japan and China’s differing official stances and strong national sentiments have had a negative impact and served to block potential avenues for improving the chilled relations between the two countries.

China’s actions in the waters off the Senkaku Islands and the growing instances of Chinese air force and navy vessels advancing into the western Pacific through the Ryūkyū (Nansei) Islands have become critical issues for Japan’s regional security. Given the tensions, a simple misunderstanding could potentially lead to an altercation between vessels of the Chinese navy and Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force. There is an urgent need to establish measures to prevent such unexpected situations from arising between Japan and China, but we see no signs of progress in this respect. In this article I will use the experience I gained while serving in the Maritime SDF and from involvement in Japan-China relations as a retired officer to look at regional security issues relating to the current state of Sino-Japanese relations and directions for their improvement.

Senkaku Islands: Pulling Back from the Brink?

Relations between Japan and China hit a low point when Japan “nationalized” three of the Senkaku Islands in September 2012 by purchasing them from their private owner, a move that inflamed nationalist sentiment in China and triggered widespread anti-Japanese protests there. Official Chinese vessels began entering the waters around the Senkakus in 2008, and the Chinese government initiated regular patrols near the islands after a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japan Coast Guard ship in autumn 2010. Tensions between Japan and China were further heightened in December 2010 when, for the first time, a Chinese Air Force plane entered airspace above the islands. In July 2013, the Chinese government established the Maritime Police Bureau as a unified organ for maritime law enforcement. The new bureau, which also uses the name “China Coast Guard” in English, brings together four previously separate maritime law enforcement organizations: China Marine Surveillance (under the State Oceanic Administration, Ministry of Land and Resources), China Coast Guard (Ministry of Public Security), Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (Bureau of Fisheries, Ministry of Agriculture), and the Anti-Smuggling Bureau (General Administration of Customs).(*2) From the time of nationalization of the islands through April 2014, official Chinese vessels made 50 incursions into territorial waters around the Senkakus.

The Japanese Coast Guard has been dispatching patrol vessels on regular rounds in response to the presence of Chinese ships in waters around the islands. While the Japanese Coast Guard keeps an eye on the activities of Chinese vessels, it is a law enforcement body and can only take action in civil incidents. Under the Japan Coast Guard Act, the role of the Coast Guard is to “ensure maritime safety”; its mission does not extend to defending territorial waters. It is not authorized to use force against foreign government vessels engaged in illegal activities and can only issue warnings or request ships to leave the area. Coast Guard patrol vessels ensure maritime safety and security in the vicinity of the Senkakus and minimally assert Japanese control of the islands by inhibiting incursions and limiting the duration Chinese ships stay in surrounding waters.

Japan and China’s dispute over the Senkaku Islands emerged suddenly in the latter half of the 1960s. After that, tensions increased slowly until 2008, when the situation rapidly deteriorated. Japan’s move to nationalize the islands further strained relations and brought the dispute over the islands to a peak. But since around the middle of 2013 the situation has been holding more or less steady at the level of mutual eyeballing between the patrol vessels dispatched by the two nations to the waters around the Senkakus. This may be seen as a sign that the Japanese and Chinese governments have been taking steps to prevent the situation from deteriorating further and thereby keep things quiet between them as a precondition for the improvement of bilateral relations. Mutual efforts have been made to cool off public opinion, and China in particular has taken actions to quell extreme nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment.

As evidence of this posture, the Maritime SDF and the Chinese navy have not deployed vessels in the vicinity of the islands but have limited themselves to providing of support for maritime surveillance and the like and stationing ships on remote standby in readiness for unexpected situations. The measured nature of this response may be seen as indicating that the Chinese have adopted a sensible, pragmatic mind-set: They are also concerned about the current state of Sino-Japanese relations and, in line with hopes of seeking improvement in the bilateral relationship, do not wish to see the situation regarding the Senkakus get any worse. This is a welcome sign, but Japan still needs to keep its guard up and be ready for developments involving the use of both hard and soft power.

Growing Tensions in the Ryūkyūs and Western Pacific

While the situation in the Senkakus shows signs of quieting down, tension is building in the waters around the Ryūkyū Islands. Much of the Japanese media coverage of the Chinese navy’s and air force’s increased movement from the East China Sea into the western Pacific has lumped these moves together with the issue of the Senkakus, and this has led to a tendency to mistake them for saber rattling over the Senkakus. While it is true that these activities can be seen as “saber rattling” in the broad sense of the term, that is not their main purpose. In fact, the Chinese are conducting them mainly as part of a purely military agenda, namely, the aforesaid A2/AD strategy, which is strongly focused on countering the capabilities of Japan’s SDF and the US military. The table below shows the number of instances Chinese navy units have passed through the Ryūkyū Islands since 2008.

Incidents of Chinese Navy Units Passing Through the Ryūkyū Islands

Year 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Passes 2 2 4 5 11 7

Sources: The figure for 2013 was compiled by the author. Figures for previous years are from the 2013 edition of the Ministry of Defense’s annual Bōei hakusho (Defense White Paper, published in English as Defense of Japan).

In October 2013, the Chinese navy’s three main fleets (the North Sea Fleet, the East Sea Fleet, and the South Sea Fleet) participated in “Maneuver 5,” a set of high-level exercises in waters south of the Ryūkyū Islands. For the Chinese navy, the maneuvers served to (1) rehearse techniques to avoid being blocked by Japan and the United States when passing through the “first island chain,”(*3) (2) bolster China’s currently low level of anti-aircraft and anti-submarine capabilities, (3) establish various A2/AD tactics, (4) institute specific regions of activity for the three main fleets, and (5) provide a consolidated practice arena for the army, air force, and Second Artillery Corps (a strategic missile force). While the Chinese have the right to carry out exercises in international waters, their lack of transparency in outlining the boundaries of the maneuvers ignored the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and had dangerous implications as it unilaterally imposed China’s own military standards on surrounding countries.

In response to this Chinese move, Japan deployed observation units to waters and air space near the maneuvers, citing its right under international agreements to do so. There is, however, a considerable difference between patrol vessels facing off near the Senkaku Islands, and Maritime SDF and the Chinese navy operating in close proximity with limited mutual understanding of each other’s activities. Over time, the latter has a greater risk of causing an unexpected situation and pushes security issues in the region to the brink. Chinese vessels have instigated potentially dangerous situations in the past, such as training fire-control radar on a Japanese frigate and blocking the path of US surveillance vessels. The focus remains on the Senkakus, but the lack of preventative measures or systems for crisis avoidance makes the developments around the Ryūkyūs potentially more volatile.

Building a Risk Management System

The front-line issues of the Senkakus and of the Ryūkyūs and the western Pacific involve fundamental concerns of sovereignty and security for both China and Japan. This means it will be difficult to resolve them over the short term. Building mutual trust is a key element in the process of finding solutions. But official exchanges between Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the Chinese military have been halted, and the only channels still open are the few exchanges between retired officers from the two countries. I know from my own experience with such exchanges that they help make up for the absence of official interactions, but they are quite roundabout. One impression I have formed from my contacts is that the Chinese, while keeping up their hard line on the Senkakus, are starting to look for a way out of the confrontation, having come to sense that the current course leads to a dead end, that staying on this course will hurt China’s national interests and could give rise to unexpected situations. As realistic steps to address these concerns, Japan and China urgently need to take trust-building measures and establish a crisis management system.

Japan and China should look to the 1972 US-Soviet Incidents at Sea Agreement, a pioneering pact that built trust between the main adversaries in the Cold War. The establishment by Japan and Russia of the 1993 Agreement Concerning the Prevention of Incidents at Sea also served to improve bilateral relations and led to the development of a crisis management system.(*4) Japan and China need to forge a similar agreement. In order to achieve this, the two countries’ leaders will need show the same resolve as the US and Soviet leaders did during the Cold War. The key to success in this endeavor will be to keep the trust-building process distinct from the emotionally charged issues between the two countries. Both the leaders and the people of Japan and China must display the courage and magnanimity to view the issue of the Senkakus Islands separately from other matters; only in this way can we hope for a success story in the bilateral relationship.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 12, 2014. Title photo: Japan Coast Guard patrol vessel Yonakuni follows a China Maritime Surveillance ship near the Senkaku Islands, February 4, 2013. Photo courtesy of the Japan Coast Guard.)

(*1) ^ With regard to Japan and America’s reaction to China’s anti-access and area denial strategy, see also Michishita Narushige, “The Future of Sino-Japanese Competition at Sea,”, March 23, 2012,, and Takahashi Sugio, “Japan’s Defense Policy and the Future of the Japan-US Alliance,”, April 23, 2012, .—Ed.

(*2) ^ The new bureau operates within the State Oceanic Administration and also receives direction from the Ministry of Public Security. With regard to the establishment of this consolidated organization, see also Shiraishi Takashi “Tokyo Election; Xi-Obama Meeting; G8 Summit,”, July 2, 2013,, and “Abe’s Mandate; China’s Face-off with ASEAN,”, August 12, 2013,—Ed.

(*3) ^ The “first island chain” is the landforms to the east of the Asian mainland, from the Kurils to the Japanese archipelago, the Ryūkyūs, Taiwan, and on to the south.—Ed.

(*4) ^ With regard to the Agreement Concerning the Prevention of Incidents at Sea as it relates to crisis management, see also Tsuruta Jun, “Conflicts and Disputes over Maritime Interests in East Asian Seas: The Role of Maritime Law Enforcement Agencies,”, December 14, 2012,—Ed.

security China US military Senkaku Islands Sino-Japanese relations Japan Coast Guard Ryūkyū Islands Self-Defense Force Chinese Coast Guard