Dangerous waters: China-Japan relations on the rocks

Water Defence China

This report argues that China and Japan must begin talks on crisis prevention and mitigation regarding the disputed waters of the East China Sea to avoid an accidental clash that could lead to a larger conflict.

The report examines the dangerous standoff between the world’s second- and third-largest economies over the sovereignty of a group of islands, known as the Diaoyu in Chinese and the Senkaku in Japanese. Responding to the Japanese government’s controversial move to purchase three of the disputed islands in September 2012, China dramatically stepped up patrols in an area previously administered by Japan alone. 

Key findings:

  • The Chinese response embodied a tactic of “reactive assertiveness”: Beijing responds very assertively to perceived provocations in order to alter the status quo in its favour. In the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute, it aims to make overlapping control a new reality that Japan must accept.
  • The standoff is likely to be long-term and fraught with risks for an accident. The actors that populate the frontline of engagement are maritime law enforcement agencies and navies. Their only mission is to vigorously defend sovereignty claims. Many factors, such as rough weather, mechanical failure or an over-zealous individual, could lead to a clash.
  • The two countries’ traditional means for defusing crises have been unravelling. Top leaders mistrust each other; back-channel diplomacy has waned. High-level officials from both need to focus urgently on negotiating crisis-management mechanisms, and their senior political figures need to provide the political space for behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
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