The East and South China Sea Incidents Are Not Accidents
By Mark J. Valencia

The East and South China Sea Incidents Are Not Accidents

Jul. 12, 2016  |     |  0 comments

A series of recent incidents between China and Japan in the East China Sea have caused quite a stir in military and international relations circles. In late June jet fighters from China and Japan nearly went at it, allegedly lighting up each other’s aircraft with fire control radar. This came on the heels of a series of incidents involving Chinese and Japanese Coast Guard vessels in the East China Sea and US and Chinese vessels and aircraft in the South China Sea. Indeed, just last August a Chinese fighter jet intercepted a US Navy Poseiden sub-hunter over the South China Sea in what the US deemed a “dangerous, unsafe and unprofessional” manner. The US-China military relationship has already been strained by the EP-3, the Bowditch, the Impeccable, and Cowpens encounters.

These latest incidents were not the first nor are they likely to be the last. To try to avoid such incidents and prevent them from escalating if they do occur, the US, China and Japan and 18 other countries agreed in 2014 to rules for such encounters. This is called the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). Building on this agreement, the US and China negotiated a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on similar rules for encounters between their military vessels and aircraft. But incidents continue and have even increased in intensity and frequency.

What’s going on and why? Are these encounters really unprovoked and unexpected?

First of all, these agreements on safe military encounters at sea do not address the fundamental differences that give rise to these encounters. Indeed, for the US and China, the Poseiden incident is just the tip of a political iceberg created by a convergence of strategic trajectories. The US “rebalancing” to Asia is coming face to face with China’s naval expansion and rising ambitions. China is developing what the US calls an anti-access/area denial strategy that is designed to control China’s “near seas” and prevent access to them by the US in the event of a conflict.

The US response is the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons which is intended to cripple China’s command, control, communications, computer and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems (C4 ISR). This means that C4 ISR is the “point of the spear” for both sides, and both are trying to dominate this sphere over, on and under China’s near seas. In short, this is where their national security interests collide.

Moreover, the US just don’t “get” China’s victim mentality stemming from its colonial experience, and nationalists and some of the military leadership are fed up with being embarrassed, poked, pricked, prodded and “tickled” by US ISR activities. The recent spate of widely publicized US FONOPS just rubs salt into the wound of China’s pride and national interests in the South China Sea.

What is needed in the long term is an agreement on a set of voluntary guidelines for military and intelligence-gathering activities in foreign EEZs and on definitions of permitted and prohibited conduct there.

Similarly, the political context for the Japan-China incidents is the sovereignty dispute over the Senkakus/Diaoyutai features in the East China Sea and a history of dangerous “cat and mouse” naval and air probes near them. This clash of national interests hides a more fundamental political dialectic between the two. Japan appears to underestimate China’s angst rooted in the cruel treatment of its citizens by Japanese soldiers during Japan’s occupation before and during WWII. More salient is that Japan’s aggressive and more militarist behavior under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe just sticks in the craw of nationalists in China’s leadership.

Second, both CUES and the MOU are non-binding and deal mainly with communications protocols. The US-China MOU in particular is an unenforceable “agreement to disagree” over the conduct of US military activities off China’s coast. China still considers these activities a provocative abuse of freedom of navigation.

Most important however is that most such encounters are not unintentional or even unexpected. They are purposeful testing of limits and the sending of “messages” through actions. While the new rules may make such encounters safer, they will not make them any friendlier or less frequent. Indeed, if the US persists in provocative actions despite China’s repeated requests to cease and desist, it must expect to be challenged. And if Japan continues to flaunt its control of the Senkakus, it too invites such challenges.

A way out of these burgeoning dialectics is a compromise in which the US cuts back or ends all together its close-in ISR probes and its FONOPS. In return, China would cease its island building and what the US calls “militarization” of the features it occupies, and stop harassing other countries’ ships and planes in disputed waters. It would also not declare an air dense identification zone over the disputed Spratly Islands.

Similarly, some tacit agreement between Japan and China to reduce or cease altogether such probes and displays of force around the disputed islands might mitigate the incidents between them.

But what is needed in the long term is an agreement on a set of voluntary guidelines for military and intelligence-gathering activities in foreign EEZs and on definitions of permitted and prohibited conduct there. Such guidelines would provide indicators of friendly (and unfriendly) behavior and help parties avoid unnecessary incidents without banning any activities outright. Such guidelines have been proposed by a group of international experts sponsored by Japan’s Ocean Policy Research Foundation.1

The most relevant of these voluntary guidelines would be the increasingly meaningful obligation to only use the ocean for peaceful purposes, and to refrain from the threat or use of force. The guidelines would also discourage provocative acts such as collecting information to support the use of force against the coastal state, or more relevant now — interfering with naval electronic systems. However, the US has repeatedly rejected any and all such guidelines — voluntary or not — as unacceptable.

So hold on to your hat. More incidents are likely.


1. Ocean Policy Research Foundation. (2005, September 26). Guidelines for Navigation and Overflight in the Exclusive Economic Zone. Retrieved from

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