The ongoing standoff over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is key for global peace and prosperity. In September 2012, in reaction to the Japanese government’s hastened acquisition of three Senkaku islets from a Japanese private citizen, China started to send its forces in the waters surrounding the small archipelago administered by Japan. In no time, the two states would engage in a prolonged game of chicken in the East China Sea (ECS): China challenged Japanese effective control of the islands while demanding Tokyo’s recognition that a sovereignty dispute existed. Japan, however, did not and instead raised its security profile to tame an aggressive China. With time, the game of chicken assumed the contours of a ‘power game.’ More than four years have passed since the standoff’s inception, but demonstrations of force persist until today, arguably because the bilateral standoff is symptomatic of deeper structural trends that go beyond strained bilateral relations.
Firstly, the standoff is a sign of China’s growing confidence and clout in its immediate neighbourhood, feeding into an aggressive reclamation of its national interests. The first ever Senkaku incursion by Chinese official vessels in December 2008 at the time indicated that portions of China’s party-state apparatus were more confidently testing the waters already at an earlier stage. Two years later, the crisis between the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) and an intoxicated Chinese fisherman, who provocatively sailed inside Senkaku waters to then ram his vessel against JCG ships, considerably strained bilateral ties. In fact, the 2010 collision incident pointed to an increasingly assertive China that did not shy away using economic levers to force Japan’s hand – quite successfully as it turned out. Following that episode, hawkish sections of China and Japan would push for a more tangible assertion of territorial rights leading to the unfolding of events in late 2012.
Secondly, progressively more insecure regional actors scrambled for their interests and hardened their stance towards China’s advancement into disputed Asian territorial waters. Japan was not entirely innocent from changing the status quo in the ECS, as Tokyo had an informal decade-old understanding with Beijing to shelve the territorial dispute. From Beijing’s perspective, Japan’s 2010 early detention of the drunken fisherman and the 2012 nationalization constituted attempts of strengthening Japan’s already solid sovereignty claims. To be sure, Japan’s readiness for international arbitration, if China so wishes, indicates a position that differs from China’s escalatory ‘might-makes- right’ approach. Yet, Tokyo now sternly denies that there ever was an agreement to shelve the sovereignty dispute. Under Abe, Japan’s inflexible take on the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute stems also from an appreciation of the staying might at the disposal of Japan vis-à-vis China. The troubled waters in the ECS are yet from calming down as both countries engage in a build-up of constabulary forces: the action/reaction dynamics confirm that Sino-Japanese interaction abides by the logic of power politics.
Thirdly, the standoff indicated China’s usage of a clever ‘hybrid’ strategy. It has used coercion there, but it has done so within the realm of international law, because China does have a legitimate, if much weaker, sovereignty claim there. China’s approach also entailed a law-based and information offensive that aimed at legitimizing and crystallizing China’s position, both domestically and internationally. On August 2, 2016 for instance, the Supreme People’s Court reiterated China’s jurisdiction over the islands and stipulated that foreigners intruding into territorial waters are deserving of harsh punishments. In concomitance with an international ‘lawfare’ that stipulated the straight baselines around the Diaoyu, China has sent not only official vessels but also paramilitary forces around those island: at the instruction of state-actors, Chinese civilian boats are used to press claims and slowly push the envelope without getting engaged in military clashes with Tokyo. In early August 2016, as many as 200-300 Chinese fishing boats surfaced in waters around the Senkakus, followed by the largest dispatch of official vessels to date. The massive use of its state-controlled maritime militia shows a signal of resolve, and ups the tempo of the standoff, feeding time and again into Japanese insecurity. It is indicative that this strategy has allowed China to occupy Scarborough Shoal in 2012, outmanoeuvring the Philippines and its powerful treaty ally, the United States.
Fourthly, and related to all the above, the United States has demonstrated indecisiveness and unpreparedness in the face of China’s maritime challenges, not least because of their ‘hybrid’ nature. Washington’s unwillingness to retaliate against China’s paramilitary ‘cabbage strategy’ at the Scarborough Shoal was a case in point. Moreover, in February 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama did not demonstrate willingness to criticize China or beef up the US-Japan security guidelines during the first bilateral summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. It took Chinese aggrandizement in the South China Sea, Abe’s security reforms and the toning down of Japanese nationalistic positions to lead to a more confident transpacific security embrace. Obama’s 2014 reassurance that the Senkaku fall within the scope of the US-Japan alliance, his recent visit to Hiroshima and Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor in December of 2016 signal that China cannot drive a wedge in the alliance, neither in the Senkaku nor with the ‘history issue.’ Yet, Japan’s fears of abandonment are still very present. Washington’s ‘Asia Pivot’ sloganeering aside, the US faces budgetary constraints on military procurement, post-Iraqi fatigue, and ongoing involvement in the Greater Middle East and Ukraine. Moreover, the 2015 alliance security guidelines do not spell out which grey zone/hybrid scenarios qualify as aggression. Thus, as China’s leverage grows and its hybrid strategy gains momentum, China may well shake Japanese confidence on the tenability of US resolve. It is not a coincidence that the Pentagon’s strategic Office of Net Assessment individuates in the Senkaku/Diaoyu standoff persistent suspicions: “Japanese leaders’ confidence in U.S. support is “eroding,” there are strains in the alliance.”
In short, the ongoing standoff provides an excellent window on: 1. the nature of China’s re-emergence to regional prominence vis-à-vis a progressively more insecure regional counterpart, 2. the strategies that China has adopted to advance its interests and 3. the shifting foundations of Japan-China-US great power politics. In conclusion, it is worth noting that by sole virtue of sending routine patrol vessels around the islands, China has already strengthened its position there. On the contrary Japan has restrained from provocative measures, such as the development of the islets, to convince not only China but arguably also the United States of its bona fide to preserve the status quo in exchange for a security commitment that Japan can’t increasingly take for granted.
Giulio Pugliese, War Studies, King’s College London
 Bill Gertz, “Japanese Intelligence Tells Pentagon China Engaged in Multi-Year Takeover Attempt of Senkaku Islands”, Free Beacon, 23 November 2016.