Peace and stability in the East China Sea acts as the foundation for improvement in China-Japan relations. From this aspect, owing to their joint commitment towards making the East China Sea a “Sea of Peace, Cooperation, and Friendship,” Beijing and Tokyo have set up the “Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism between the defense authorities of China and Japan” to prevent accidental clashes in the air and at sea. This outcome was reached at Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on May 9, 2018 in Tokyo.
This agreement marks a crucial step forward for both countries. With the heightened risk of an armed conflict between the two countries in the contested sea, “prevention” has become the watchword. More specifically, the dispute has become a prime source of instability in China-Japan relations, with risk of military conflict arising from their overall strategic competition in East Asia in general and over contested claims in the disputed areas in particular. In other words, the criticality lies in the two-fold nature of the dispute: (a) the sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, and (b) the way the maritime border between China and Japan in the East China Sea should be drawn.
This clash of legal interests further complicates their competing material interests given the high economic value of the East China Sea which houses rich hydrocarbon resources and fisheries stock. Both these economic resources are of vital interest to China and Japan, as they are heavily dependent on oil and gas and their rich appetite for fish. The available data that the oil and natural gas reserves in the East China Sea will be enough to meet China’s needs for at least 80 years; the abundance of manganese in the waters near the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands will meet Japan’s needs for 320 years, cobalt for 1,300 years, nickel for 100 years, and natural gas for 100 years; not to mention other mineral resources and plentiful fish. Furthermore, the East China Sea serves as an important trade route, making the islands a core national interest for both China and Japan. Hence, the commonality of interests complicates the issue from being resolved.
In view of this, with the Japanese government’s purchase of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in 2012 as reciprocated with China’s unilateral establishment of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in 2013, the East China Sea has become a crucial flashpoint. Since then, the chances of dangerous encounters have been on the rise with each passing year, as China’s growing naval activism have been met with Japan’s increasing defensive posture. With the long dead on the East China Sea, there remains no active binding mechanism to defuse the escalating tensions. In this context, as there is no quick fix to the broader problem, a crisis mechanism is the only solution to quell the dangers.
What makes the matter complicated is the diplomatic failure on either side to adopt a maritime crisis management mechanism. There exists a on the settlement practice. For Japan, the main objective since 2012 has been to separate crisis management and confidence building in the security sphere from other areas of bilateral relations. For China, the priority has been that of a more political and less technical approach, with the concept of “strategic trust” as the precedent to convey the sense that security is ultimately dependent on the overall state of political relations.
The caveat remains that the geographical scope of the maritime and aerial communication mechanisms has not yet been specified. This can be argued to be an intentional attempt on either side to reach a consensus by sidestepping the territorial row over the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.
However, sidestepping this diplomatic divide and recognizing the risk of accidental fallout, China and Japan have paved their way into signing a crisis management agreement after a long-standing process of consultation for 10 years. The foundation for the adoption of such a mechanism came from 2008 to 2012 when the two sides conducted three rounds of consultations on the mechanism and three points of consensus: first, the need to set up a hotline between the two defense departments; second, the need to unify the radio frequency and language of two countries’ ships and aircraft; and third, the need for the two defense departments to conduct regular exchanges. This came to a standstill with Japan’s purchase of the islands in 2012. However, the idea was put into force with the 2015 Security Talks between China and Japan that resumed after an interregnum of four years in which both parties agreed to set up a “”.
What makes this crisis management mechanism crucial is the four-fold nature of the contested claims and interests between China and Japan in the East China Sea: (a) disputes over islands, (b) disputes over maritime rights and interests, (c) China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy ships passing through international waters, through the Japanese archipelago, into the Western Pacific and, (d) their overlapping ADIZs. Given these triggers at play, the risk of an accidental encounter is always on a rise. The key pointer is that both China and Japan are equally strong actors who can counter-weigh each other at any levels of an armed escalation. More importantly, the frequency of incursions has increased, as PLA Navy ships and planes increasingly seek to transit the contested air and waters added with increasing scrambles with Japan’s Self-Defense Force (SDF). To note, 2017 had 500 of such intercepts, and this number is likely to increase. In view of this, the “Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism” acts as a pragmatic tool in maintaining the checks and balances between China and Japan.
This much needed code of conduct will be under the following framework. The two countries will first establish rules for direct communications in the event the SDF and Chinese forces come close to each other; second, they will set up a hotline between their defense authorities; and finally, they will mutually host annual meetings of director-general and division chief level officials. Furthermore, with regard to direct communications between vessels and aircraft, China and Japan, as , will use specific frequencies, signals and abbreviations based on the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), adopted in 2014 by 21 countries, and the Convention on International Civil Aviation. However, the caveat remains that the geographical scope of the maritime and aerial communication mechanisms has not yet been specified. This can be argued to be an intentional attempt on either side to reach a consensus by sidestepping the territorial row over the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands — which are currently administered by Japan but claimed by China based on historical records.
By keeping the differences aside and taking a pragmatic step forward with the crisis management mechanism, China and Japan have put forward a significant precedent to the unfolding rapprochement between the two countries. As any form of escalation implies significant costs on either side, and this proactive measure will help to avert any form of unwarranted contingencies. Most importantly, this confidence building measure contributes to the trust build up given the perception gap between Beijing and Tokyo. Furthermore, this mechanism also helps reduce the accidental risks of unintended armed conflicts. However, the larger challenge that remains is the sustainability and the robustness of the crisis management agreement signed between China and Japan.