Two months after China declared an “air defense identification zone” off its coast that rattled Japan and other neighbors, tensions in the region continue to rise, along with the risk of a maritime mishap that could escalate into a full-blown military conflict.
A close call occurred last month when a Chinese military vessel nearly collided with a U.S. guided-missile cruiser, the Cowpens, as the Navy ship was observing China’s new aircraft carrier, which was operating in the area.
This month, China’s Hainan Province issued new regulations that require foreign fishing vessels to obtain permission from the government before casting their nets in parts of the South China Sea that Beijing claims. Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan protested the edict, seeing it as a threat to their food security and an attempt by China to claim nearly the entire South China Sea as its own.
Then, on Jan. 12, three Chinese government ships briefly entered waters near a set of disputed islands claimed by both Japan and China, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, that have long been a source of conflict.
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Analysts say both countries are escalating their rhetoric partly because of domestic political calculations. Neither Chinese President Xi Jinping nor Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to appear soft at home in dealing with a historic adversary, a perceived weakness that could undermine their respective economic agendas.
“On China’s part, there is clearly a long-term strategy to gradually strengthen Chinese claims in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea,” said Denny Roy, a senior fellow in the research program at the East-West Center in Honolulu. He says Beijing is trying to establish “control” of the area – a concept recognized by modern international law – and also send a signal that other nations “should wise up and negotiate settlements on China’s terms.”
On Japan’s part, he said, Abe wants to make clear he will not be pressured into making a major concessions to China. On Jan. 12, the Japanese military conducted a war game named “Island Defense,” in which troops simulated the retaking of a remote island from a foreign power.
Roy said he’s watching to see if Japan might take a further step that would force China to fight or back down. “Putting Japanese security personnel on one of the Senkaku Islands would be such a step,” he said.
Even the most minor military exchange in the region has the potential to roil U.S.-Chinese relations and international commerce. The shipping lanes of the South and East China Seas are vital to China’s trade with the world and to obtaining the raw materials it needs to sustain its economy. Japan and China’s economies are interlinked in so many ways that many Asia watchers doubt their rhetoric will escalate into an air or naval battle.
Still, with all of the military vessels, submarines, coast guard cruisers and fishing boats floating around the East and South China seas, the chance of an accident looms. In 2010, a clash between Japanese coast guard boats and a Chinese fishing trawler near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands set off a diplomatic storm, prompting Chinese rallies against purchases of Japanese cars and other products.
Relations between the two counties calmed after that, but then flared up when Abe, a right-wing nationalist and former prime minister, returned to office in late 2012. Last month, Abe became the first Japanese prime minister since 2006 to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals from World War II.
Since, then, hardly a day passes in Beijing without a state-controlled newspaper publishing a commentary that condemns Japan and Abe in the harshest terms. China has also amped up its rhetoric against the United States, which along with criticizing Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, has criticized China’s air defense identification zone and new fishing restrictions.
“It is time Washington stopped resorting to tired old tricks and instead played a role in advancing peace and stability in the area, otherwise it will be unwelcome in the region,” said a recent editorial in the government-run China Daily.
Richard C. Bush, director of East Asian Studies for the Brookings Institution, agrees that tensions are “somewhat higher” in the region. But in an email exchange with McClatchy, Bush noted some restraint on part of Xi Jinping in the wake of Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visit. Beijing hasn’t encouraged or allowed public demonstrations against Japan, as it did a few years ago. Nor has China exerted overt military pressure on Japan, one its biggest trading partners.
Xi, who ascended to Communist Party general secretary in late 2012 and became president a few months later, is widely viewed as one of the most powerful Chinese leaders in years. Since taking power, he has worked to tighten control over the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army, and increase its budget, particularly for the navy.
China spends far less on its armed forces than nearly all other world powers as a percentage of its GNP. Nonetheless, it invests roughly $166 billion a year in its military, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, second only to the United States.
Xi has made reform of the economy one of his top priorities, as China seeks to encourage more domestic consumption and rely less on heavy industry and exports of cheap goods. Yet to make this transition, Roy said, he will need support of various factions within the Communist Party, including PLA leaders and ultra-nationalists.
Last week, China confirmed it had successfully tested an “ultra high-speed missile vehicle” that some media reports suggested would give China the ability to deliver warheads through the missile defenses of the United States.
Chinese media ridiculed those claims, with the Chinese Ministry of National Defense issuing a statement that “the tests were not aimed at any nation nor any specific target.”