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Why China Is Stepping Up Quest for the Senkakus in 2018




On January 11th, the Japanese government confirmed spotting a submerged Chinese submarine near Japan’s territorial waters as it entered the 24 nautical miles (44 km) contiguous zone east-northeast of Miyako Island—located in Japan’s Okinawa prefecture—around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Expectedly, temperatures have been soaring high in Tokyo’s political corridors in what, otherwise is, an extremely cold topographical climatic backdrop.


Japan’s defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, further accused China of unilaterally heightening tensions and escalating the level of discord. Tokyo followed up by lodging an official protest with the Chinese ambassador to Japan, Cheng Yonghua.




Chinese Coast Guard vessels have frequently entered territorial waters dangerously close to the Senkaku Islands in the past. What stands out this time around, however, is that a Chinese submarine has become the first “foreign submarine” to have touched upon the area immediately outside Japanese waters, in the Japanese contiguous zone around the Senkakus.



A few hours apart from the surfacing of the submarine, a Chinese Jiangkai 2-class frigate was also observed, thereby becoming the second confirmed instance of a Chinese frigate entering the contiguous zone—the first such occurrence was confirmed in June 2016.



The contiguous zone may not extend beyond 24 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured. Every state has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from baselines determined in accordance with the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.


Both of the above developments reaffirm China’s unilateral actions and political will to up the ante in the name of “sovereignty.” What emerges is the image of a rising China that is growing ever more revisionist, expansionist, and combative.



Be it Doklam, Senkaku Islands, Scarborough Shoal, or the extended South China Sea, China repeatedly seeks to find that small window of opportunity wherein it can attempt to alter the status quo in the context of impending territorial and boundary disputes.



Although China often touts its “peaceful rise,” its endless status quo revisionism in almost all its existing territorial disputes—from the East China Sea to the South China Sea and Himalayan borderlands—suggests that 21st century Asian political geography shall continue to be shaped, and reshaped, by Beijing’s cartographic subjectivity. Present day political geography contains noteworthy dichotomies that remain hard to ignore, especially with Beijing’s failure to adhere to the status quo on multiple fronts.


During a public symposium on the subject of “History and Reconciliation” held in Tokyo on October 12, 2017, voices from the region and beyond discussed and debated upon the impact of history on regional security issues. Asia’s history and colonial past made an indelible mark on demographics, borders and their disputes, political systems, laws, economies, cultural influx, and identities. The defining trends of Asia’s colonial past during the 20th century, for that matter, seem to be continuing to cast a shadow on its ensuing future.


During this symposium, a speaker from the region argued that the decision of the Japanese government in September 2012 to nationalize the Senkaku Islands by purchasing three of the five uninhabited islets in the East China Sea heightened regional tensions. Arguments such as these can best be described as peripheral and shallow, based more on the broader foreign policy narratives and principles of individual states and their strategic interest, and not that much on archival research, documents, and recorded facts on the ground.



My book published last year—titled China, Japan and Senkaku Islands: Conflict in the East China Sea amid an American Shadow—chronicles explicit details as to why the Yoshihiko Noda government was almost compelled to act pre-emptively in its decision to nationalize the Senkakus.


The Noda decision was premised primarily on the anxiety that then-Governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara would proceed with a plan he announced on April 16, 2012, to purchase the islands from the Kurihara family and build structures on them to counter China’s challenge of Japanese control. It was thought that Ishihara’s actions, if carried out, would trigger a far larger crisis in which tensions with China would spiral out of control.



The archives and research reveal the May 2012 move by the Noda administration was also prompted by concerns that it did not possess adequate legal means to block, or stall, Ishihara’s move. At the time, Ishihara was riding high on overwhelming public support of his plan to purchase the islands.


Besides, Noda was reportedly said to be driven by “a sense of responsibility” aimed at defending Japanese territory. Accordingly, Noda announced in September 2012 that Japan would purchase or “re-nationalize” the three privately-owned islets.



A significant development that often goes overlooked while writing and debating the Senkaku Islands is that, prior to this announcement, Noda sent his special envoy to Beijing to explain to the Chinese officials that the purchase was aimed towards stable maintenance and management of the islands, peacefully, in the backdrop of domestic political developments inside Japan.


Besides, Prime Minister Noda also met with President Hu Jintao in Vladivostok just prior to the purchase in order to describe and clarify his intentions.



However, Hu did not accept Noda’s move towards nationalization and did not appear even superficially receptive to hearing out Noda’s explanation. Beijing took the view that the purchase was a deliberate attempt to reassess status quo. China’s policy apparatus, given the very different political and legal systems in the two countries, adopted this version. In contrast to Japan, Chinese regional officials who oversee provinces are appointed and rotated by the central government as they “respond to signals sent by the centralized party leadership.”


The predictably negative reaction of Beijing to Tokyo’s move drove it to swiftly “encourage protests” across China, and public venting of outrage by raising the slogan and cause of “Chinese sovereignty.”


What strikes here is a gaping paradox. The lack of freedom of expression and association in China and the State’s tight-fisted control—prohibiting even the remotest possibility for protests, marches, demonstrations, public and private meetings that might challenge the State—are well acknowledged. The proclivity of China’s political leadership and military hierarchy to deal with Japan in an unyielding manner—including employing its citizens to “protest”—appears to have been designed to aid the politics and political rumblings within China.


Chinese domestic politics, including pressure on the central government to craft a strong Chinese national identity, is among the main drivers behind China’s provocations. The Party and the government in China repeatedly have demonstrated a penchant for flashing the “Japan card” to consolidate its control internally and crush any potential form of challenge that might destabilize China domestically.





The protests and stirred-up nationalist sentiment are significant in that public demonstration remains a double-edged sword for the Chinese leadership. There is a very thin line before it could well assume the shape of a threat to the Party and State.


Socio-political subjugation and repression within China remain a perennial source of challenge to the political authority and legitimacy of the Party. As Xi Jinping is expected to consolidate control both politically and militarily in 2018 in the affairs of the State, China’s latest moves in reference to the Senkaku Islands stand out as a fraught attempt to strengthen its claims while it strategizes its offensive posturing vis-à-vis the Senkaku Islands.


It is a surreptitious attempt to affirm control by insisting that, indeed, there is a dispute over the Senkaku Islands and providing a platform for a long-term Chinese strategy of chipping away at Japanese claims. This, no doubt, bears critical ramifications for Northeast Asian security and stability.



Dr. Monika Chansoria is a senior visiting fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo. Her latest book is China, Japan and Senkaku Islands: Conflict in the East China Sea amid an American Shadow. Follow her on Twitter @MonikaChansoria.




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