TOKYO woke up Thursday to hints of a nightmare scenario in what it considers its backyard. Just after midnight, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force sighted a Jiangkai I frigate from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy within the 24-nautical mile contiguous zone of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The ships lingered for about two hours near the Senkakus, which Japan controls but China also claims (the Chinese know them as the Diaoyu Islands). A People’s Liberation Army Navy ship has never been spotted so close to the Senkakus. To make matters worse for Tokyo, three Russian navy ships, including an Udaloy-class destroyer, passed through the contiguous waters during the same period.
The band of water between 12 and 24 nautical miles from the shore of a country, where a state has more legal authority to enforce its laws relative to the rest of its exclusive economic zone.
The presence of the Chinese and Russian ships was legal under international law—contiguous zones are considered international waters—but still sparked a flurry of activity in Tokyo. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued instructions during the dead of night for various government ministries to be on alert. The Japanese government also notified the Americans and, within an hour of the incident, China’s ambassador was summoned to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
Beijing appears to have desired just such a reaction. The Japanese have grown concerned with the increasingly better equipped Chinese coast guard patrols around the Senkakus, but the coast guard’s presence in the contiguous zone has become fairly routine; Chinese coast guard cutters were in the contiguous zone for 28 of the 31 days in May. But dispatching a warship represents an escalation guaranteed to alarm Tokyo—to say nothing of bringing in new players, the Russians. It stretches the imagination to think that China, which keeps close tabs on the maritime environment off its eastern coast, would not have noticed Russian warships steaming up to the Senkakus from the south.
It is, of course, possible that China saw the Russian ships coming and unilaterally decided to take the opportunity to send a ship of its own into the contiguous zone. Moscow actually has its own territorial dispute with Tokyo over the Kuril Islands, but unlike in China’s case, Russia is in control of the Kurils and has been since taking them from Japan at the end of World War II. For this reason, Russia would probably not want to get involved in the Senkakus dispute and risk unnecessarily complicating its relationship with Japan. But the Japanese—and their main ally, the United States—must at least consider the possibility that the two planned their moves together.
China’s actions are a sort of mirror image of operations the US is running against Beijing in the South China Sea. Washington’s freedom of navigation operations, a series of periodic high-profile naval voyages near China’s de facto possessions in the South China Sea, are designed to grab Beijing’s attention and put it on notice that its territorial assertions are not unchallenged. China’s operations, however, are mainly aimed at Tokyo.
Japan under Abe has upset Beijing by broadening the geographic and functional scope of the operations of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, which Japan’s postwar pacifism long limited. Perceptions of Chinese expansionism have prompted Japan to prioritize responding in the South China Sea. In 2015, Japan announced the start of talks with the Philippines on a Visiting Forces Agreement that would permit Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel to rotate through Philippine bases. Later that year, Japan secured an agreement with Vietnam to allow Japanese warships to make port calls at Cam Ranh Bay, which they did in April of this year. Even more ambitiously, Japan has responded that it might be amenable to US calls for regional powers to join freedom of navigation operations in waters far beyond the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s traditional domain in Japan’s near seas. Though these steps are incremental, they represent slow and steady progress toward a clear endpoint most unwelcome in Beijing: the routinization of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force operations in the South China Sea.
China has long warned Japan to avoid “interfering” in the South China Sea. With its warnings failing, China has decided to expand its capabilities and shift its tactics in the East China Sea to remind Japan of the consequences of its actions. As Japan raises its involvement in the South China Sea, a body of water as strategically vital to China as the Caribbean is to the US, China thus decided to get involved in Japan’s backyard—a threat made much graver by the appearance of Russian involvement on China’s side.
© 2016 STRATFOR GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE