Welcome to installment XXIII (November 2020) of Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column on major developments in relations between China and Japan that provides a running commentary on the evolution of this important relationship and helps to put current events in perspective.
The year is drawing to a close the way it started, with yet another flare up of hand-wringing tensions over the disputed waters of the East China Sea between China and Japan. The Japanese coast guard reports that Chinese vessels continue an unprecedented level of activity in the waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and are making increasingly bold moves inside their territorial waters. Elsewhere, Chinese fishing vessels have been spotted in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone in record numbers causing an uproar among local Japanese fishermen.
Chinese vessels’ constant presence around the Senkaku/Diaoyu is part of Beijing’s strategy to slowly chip away at Japan’s control of the islands by demonstrating an ability to conduct operations at will in their territorial waters, including targeting Japanese fishing boats. Under this backdrop, Tokyo is on edge over a new draft legislation by the Chinese National People’s Congress which authorizes coast guard officers “under attack” to use handheld weapons in disputed waters.
Tokyo is on edge over Chinese legislation which authorizes coast guard officers “under attack” to use handheld weapons in disputed waters
Chinese fishermen, on the other hand, are venturing in waters far from those claimed by their government in search for the catch they are now unable to secure in the depleted fishing grounds closer to their home base. While their movements are not a direct order from Beijing, they do so with implicit official backing through fuel subsidies and a lack of supervision. In fact, illicit Chinese fishing is becoming a major concern around the globe, from South Korea and Japan to the coasts of Africa and South America.
From Tokyo’s point of view, as well as that in other East Asian capitals, the growing presence of Chinese vessels in regional waters has created a general sense of apprehension and fear over being overwhelmed by China’s maritime expansion. This helps explain why many in Japan enthusiastically welcomed the Trump administration’s hardline China policies and how negative public perceptions of China have persisted in contrast to the improvement of attitudes towards Japan on the Chinese side. The relentless barrage of news on Chinese incursions in Japanese waters has been fueling growing anxiety over the “China threat” among the Japanese public.
China’s incursions explain why many in Japan enthusiastically welcomed the Trump administration’s hardline China policies
Beijing is certainly aware of the worsening image in Japan, but there is no indication that it’s ready to crack down on its fishermen or reduce its coast guard dispatches in order to improve the situation. These activities indeed serve as crucial necessities for the Chinese leadership in which the qualms of foreigners count for very little. Chinese control over its neighboring seas against a potential threat from America and its allies must be consolidated, regardless of said allies’ protestations. Chinese “maritime rights and interests” must be protected from those who, according to the narrative of national humiliation and rejuvenation, have too long infringed on them with impunity. The employment of fishermen and the supply of seafood for the Chinese market remains a priority, even if it means turning a blind eye on illicit activities abroad.
It is of course possible that unified foreign pressure will eventually push the Chinese government to restrain its long-distance fishing fleet, and that Tokyo and Beijing will one day agree on a framework to manage tensions in disputed areas of the East China Sea. Yet, the current attitude among Chinese leaders seems to be that its maritime expansion is a natural consequence of the growth of its economic and military power, and that other countries have to learn to live with it. This maritime expansion is fueled both by nationalist pride and territorial and food security concerns. It’s hard to imagine what could push Beijing to reconsider, negative foreign perceptions aside.