During the morning of January 21st, three China Marine Surveillance vessels—the Haijian 23, 46, and 137—entered the territorial waters of Japan north of Kubajima, one of the Senkaku Islands, in the East China Sea. This followed an intrusion by the Haijian 23 and two sister vessels during the preceding Saturday, also in the morning.
The incursion on the 21st was the 24th such incident since September, when Tokyo purchased three of the five barren islands, administered as part of its Okinawa Prefecture, from their Japanese owners.
It’s not clear what is driving Chinese belligerence at the moment. It could be disarray in Beijing that is allowing the hard-line elements to do what they want or maybe new leader Xi Jinping is the nationalist he is reputed to be and is pushing his country toward a showdown with a projection of force. In any event Xi has just said that China’s territorial claims will not be compromised, and it’s unclear if Beijing can be appeased.
China, Japan, and Taiwan all dispute the sovereignty of these East China Sea outcroppings, which have in fact been controlled by Tokyo since 1972, when Washington returned administration of them to Japan . Until 1971, the People’s Republic effectively acknowledged that the islands were Japanese, but now Beijing says they have been indisputably China’s for centuries.
The claims are based on a so-called “9-dashed line” map, adapted by the Zhou Enlai government when it took control of China in 1949. It is taken from the original map, known as the “11-dashed line” that was drawn by Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government in 1947, a time when the islands of the South China Sea, once said to be a Japanese lake, were being returned to the countries that had possessed them before World War II. The fundamental difference in the maps is that the Nationalist China map includes the Gulf of Tonkin, the Communist China map does not.
The confusion over the legality of claims to the territories begins with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed in 1951, that officially ended World War II and Japan’s position as an imperial power. Neither China nor Taiwan were present because countries attending the peace conference could not agree which was the legitimate government of China. The treaty, as signed by the parties, did not specify which countries could legally possess the former Japanese territories in the South China Sea.
China is inconsistent in attempting to de-recognize Japan’s World War II territorial claims in the South China Sea while using those claims to assert its sovereignty on former Japanese territories.
The United Nations Law of the Sea Convention that concluded in 1982 defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world's oceans. Among its provisions are rules for establishing territorial limits and providing means for settling disputes over coastal claims. All of the countries boarding the South China Sea, except North Korea, are among the 162 nations to ratify the treaty. The U.S. Senate has not ratified the treaty.
The Japanese keep trying, however. In the past weeks, no fewer than three of their political figures have made pilgrimages to China in apparent attempts to cool tensions, carrying a message from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But China reacted in sending three of its vessels close to the islands.
Japan and the US, however, appear desperate to keep peace in Asia and are afraid to anger the Chinese. There were early signs last year, when Washington effectively reneged on its treaty obligations to Manila and allowed Beijing to forcefully take Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, a low point for American diplomacy. The Obama administration, unfortunately, chose to ignore China’s aggression and in effect invited conflict in Asia.
China’s assertive posture has raised concerns among the international community about the potential for conflict in the South China Sea area. Beijing’s steps in the South China Sea are more determined and aggressive than ever, creating the worrisome prospect of escalating tension in the area.
By Guylain Gustave Moke