As the United States takes the lead in challenging China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Chinese government has begun to warn off Japan from assuming a role in the matter. While Japan has no territorial interests in the South China Sea, it continues to disregard China’s claim to the entirety of the East China Sea, much of which Japan claims as its own.
A large presence at the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit this week, Japanese representatives supported a proposal to add a warning to China to stay out of the South China Sea into the traditional joint declaration the countries draft at the end of the summit. The declaration is typically a place for the countries to form a united front on a number of issues of common interest.
The joint declaration failed to include any mention of the South China Sea after Chinese officials pressured other representatives at the meeting to oppose it, despite the fact that the territory that China claims as sovereign to it is disputed between itself and Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
Today, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan issued a statement warning Japanese officials not to meddle in the South China Sea. Japan has publicly considered joining American warships in traveling through the region. That warning followed a far more cordial set of remarks from the Chinese government towards Japan, following an agreement to discuss the East China Sea.
Japan has no stake in the South China Sea, save to avoid a precedent that could give China greater legitimacy in imposing itself over the East China Sea. There, Japan has objected to China’s takeover of the Senkaku Islands. While uninhabited, the Senkaku Islands are resource-rich and strategically located. Japan has documented historical claims to them, while the Chinese government insists, as it does in the South China Sea, that the “Diaoyu” have belonged to them since ancient times.
Based on this ancient claim, China established an “Air Defense Identification Zone” (ADIZ) over the disputed islands in late 2013. The ADIZ would require all foreign aircraft (except commercial airliners) to identify itself in the region to the Chinese government before entering. The United States and Japan openly rejected this claim, freely entering the skies over the Senkaku Islands and challenging China’s claim. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the ADIZ “unenforceable.”
China has done little to prevent any military planes from flying over the area since. The Japan Times noted this week that, while the ADIZ is “technically in operation,” “China has quietly stopped seeking to actively enforce it, according to military officials and policy advisers who have followed the issue.” The article suggests that the ADIZ over the East China Sea was an attempt to test the Japanese and American governments before attempting a full takeover of the South China Sea, a much larger and more significant trade route affecting a large portion of the continent. Having failed at usurping the waters from Japan, China continued its construction in the South China Sea and only made maritime challenges in the region, not aerial ones.
Despite the dispute, China and Japan agreed on Sunday to restart talks that had ceased in 2012 on joint projects to harness the oil and gas reserves that lie in the area. The talks, leaders expressed, would hopefully also lead to the establishment of a communication system that would allow both nations to cooperate in the region. Officials also expressed hope they could lower the number of tense incidents between their militaries. In October, Reuters reported that Japanese jets in the region were forced to scramble 117 times from July to September due to intransigent Chinese activity. The Chinese Foreign Ministry replied to the complaint by asserting that “the actions of China’s aircraft in the airspace over the relevant sea are justified and legal.”
How much those tensions will continue to plague these new talks remains to be seen. According to a translation of a report in Chinese state media’s military newspaper The People’s Liberation Army Daily, a foreign jet believed to be Japanese was forced out of the region by ADIZ-enforcing Chinese planes. An increased number of such incidents, if it indeed occur, could pressure Japan into talks favorable to the Chinese government.