Japan creates ripples in the East China Sea

Aerial shot of a disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islet.  Photo: Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and TourismBy Christian Le Miere, Research Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security

Hokusei-kojima, Hokutou-kojima, Kita-kojima by Kuba-jima and Kita-kojima by Taisho-jima – these names have roiled the waters of the East China Sea again. They were the labels that Japan chose recently for four disputed islets during the seemingly uncontroversial procedure of defining its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Japan was announcing the names of 39 uninhabited islands that help determine the boundary of its EEZ. However, by including islands in what it calls the Senkaku archipelago, Tokyo has upset China. Beijing also lays claim to the islands, which it calls the Diaoyus, and has hit back with its own list of names. Taipei, which considers that it owns the ‘Tiaoyus’, has protested Japan’s move, asking for restraint so as not to harm bilateral relations.

This spat over nomenclature appears to have reopened a long-standing maritime dispute that has festered for several years. A Sino-Japanese agreement in June 2008 to shelve the dispute and jointly exploit natural gas deposits in the area has never been implemented. Negotiations over joint exploration stagnated, even before the collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese coastguard vessel in September 2010 essentially scuppered them.

The two sides haven’t met since to discuss the East China Sea, even as other aspects of their economic relations steadily evolve. And while the dispute over the East China Sea doesn’t get as much press attention as that in the South China Sea, it is no less acrimonious. Tokyo’s wariness of Beijing’s rise, exemplified by this weekend’s announcement of yet another double-digit percentage growth rise in the Chinese defence budget, is similarly fuelling defence procurement, as outlined by the IISS’s Military Balance 2012 (out tomorrow).

A big question is how China’s next leaders, due to start coming to power at the end of the year, will approach this and other maritime disputes. Given the history of mistrust between China and Japan, it may be difficult for any new Chinese leader to suggest weakness on this issue. So it seems the East China Sea dispute will continue to be a problem for some years to come.


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