China has stepped up its incursions around the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands in what Japanese officials claim is a new attempt at changing the status quo in the East China Sea.
Noting a marked shift in China’s behaviour around the islands since last December, a Japanese foreign ministry official said: “The situation in the East China Sea is getting worse.”
Tension over the group of five uninhabited islands and three barren rocks mounted in September 2012, when the Japanese government — which has administered the islands since 1895 — bought them from a private owner.
Japanese officials fear Beijing is using the shift in international attention towards the South China Sea — where China has been constructing artificial islands — to mount a new push in the waters further north.
Tokyo has formally protested the Chinese actions, which it calls a “forceful, coercive attempt to change the status quo”, but has so far avoided any escalation with countermeasures of its own.
In late December, China sailed an armed vessel into territorial waters around the disputed islands for the first time.
Sailing with three other Chinese vessels, a former naval frigate converted for coastguard use but carrying four quick-firing 37mm cannon, entered the 24 nautical mile “contiguous zone” around the islands for the first time on December 22, and the 12 nautical mile territorial waters on December 26.
“Recently, the Chinese government sent bigger, stronger patrol ships — almost equivalent with naval combatant ships — into the waters around the Senkakus,” said Hideaki Kaneda, a retired vice-admiral now at the Okazaki Institute in Tokyo.
China is racing ahead with construction projects on reclaimed land in the South China Sea, satellite images show, with an airstrip capable of handling combat jets among projects now close to completion.
Mr Kaneda said Japan’s best response is to seek face-to-face dialogue with China, insisting it follows international laws and norms, while also strengthening Japan’s practical ability to retain control over the Senkakus.
Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said rising tensions in the East China Sea are “correlated” with trouble in the South China Sea, due to fears Japan will become more involved in the latter maritime dispute, focused on Vietnam and the Philippines.
“China seeks to increase pressure on Japan, as a diversion from the South China Sea,” said Mr Ni. “Meanwhile, Japan is trying to take advantage of the complex situation in the South China Sea, as a window of opportunity to make trouble in the East China Sea.”
In addition, China has stepped up its exploitation of resources in the East China Sea, commissioning four new gas platforms close to the median line with Japan during 2015. Activity by research vessels affiliated with state-owned Chinese companies more than doubled in 2015 from nine to 22 incidents, according to the Japanese foreign ministry.
In a recent interview with the FT, Mr Abe said Japan “harbours very strong concern” about China’s territorial claims, but balanced that with praise for Beijing’s economic policy, showing his desire to keep talking with Mr Xi.
China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (Plan) has also changed its behaviour. From December 23, a Plan intelligence-gathering ship spent two-and-a-half days sailing back-and-forth in international waters just south of the Senkakus.
Its course followed the outer limit of the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) that China declared in 2013. The Chinese ADIZ — in which foreign aircraft are supposed to identify themselves and follow instructions from Chinese authorities — overlaps with Japan’s zone and includes the disputed islands.
One possible explanation for this pattern is that China intends to step up its monitoring and control of the ADIZ. “What we are afraid of is that warships will follow the same route,” said the Japanese foreign ministry official.