The Covid-19 pandemic, which was first identified in Wuhan, China, has already had a profound impact on the international order – politically, economically and culturally – and Asia is no exception. What is staggering though is the lack of global cooperation as well as exacerbated great-power rivalries, regional disputes and diplomatic tensions that have continued to plague the region even as the pandemic has grown.
China in particular has been continuously building its revisionist posture across Asia with its aggressive military-maritime assertiveness keeping the Indo-Pacific region on edge. The rising tensions with the United States, its threats against Taiwan, the Galwan valley skirmish with India, the new security law for Hong Kong, its diplomatic tensions with Australia, and its increasing belligerence in the South China Sea and East China Seas (ECS) are all part of its need to assert a new China-led world order.
According to Japanese officials, two Chinese patrol ships intruded into the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands) in the ECS in July 2020 – twice within four days, spending 30 hours and 40 hours, respectively, inside the territory. This is the longest foray by Chinese vessels into Japan’s territory since the year 1972 which witnessed an agreement between the US and Japan to revert the administrative rights over the Senkaku’s to Japan, and more importantly, since 2012 when tensions over the island dramatically intensified with the Japan central government purchasing three of the Senkaku islands against Chinese protests to assert administrative control. Reportedly, Japan’s coast guard vessels blocked the Chinese ships from approaching the former’s fishing boats on at least one occasion.
In another incident soon after, a Chinese ship was seen conducting activities in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near Okinotorishima for more than a week. Japan protested the move but China dismissed it, arguing that “Japan’s unilateral claim [to the EEZ] has no legal basis”. What’s more, China in turn has asked Japan, via diplomatic channels, to manage the movement of its fishing boats in the contested territory, alleging that they were “trespassing” on Chinese waters.
History suggests that both China and Japan have considered the islands their inherent territory, and for China, patrolling in these waters is its natural right. But the tensions worsened in June when the Okinawa city council changed the administrative status of the islands and renamed them “Tonoshiro Senkaku” (formerly Tonoshiro). Beijing called the move a “serious provocation towards China’s territorial sovereignty” and soon retaliated by renaming the seabed zones around the islands.
Nonetheless, Japan sees the July intrusions as an infringement on its sovereignty. And were China and Japan to engage militarily, the United States could be obliged to defend its partner Japan’s sovereignty, which will raise the stakes for a full-scale war between the two great powers, the United States and China – a scenario best avoided.
These aggressive manoeuvres by China are a part of its well-thought-out foreign policy strategy that aims to not only enhance its footprint in the Indo-Pacific but also project it as a contender to the US global dominance. Therefore, Chinese adventurism in the ECS is not a spur-of-the-moment move; it highlights China’s blatant efforts to change the region’s status quo by positioning itself as a dominant military-maritime great power. The maritime incursions are in line with China’s recent conflict with India in the Galwan valley as well as the clashes in the South China Sea – a show of military strength in multiple locations at the same time.
The United States had already been struggling to maintain its status as the global hegemon even before the Covid-19 outbreak, but the pandemic coupled with rising social and political tensions (e.g. the Black Lives Matter protests) within its territory has exposed its vulnerabilities further; China has latched on to the opportunity. Notwithstanding global criticism about its handling of the pandemic in its initial stages, China has unabashedly continued to build its own narrative and has been projecting its economic and military superiority. Its blatant disregard for the existing rules-based world order, however, highlights what a China-led international order might look like.
Accordingly, to realise its foreign policy aims in the region, China sees establishing its influence over Japan as essential. China’s rivalry with Japan is age-old, and linked to its goal of upholding regional dominance. As a result, Japan’s intention to acquire first-strike capability and its growing alliances with Indo-Pacific partners may have prompted China to escalate matters in the ECS. Also, days before the intrusions, Japan had offered a tactical support to India on the Galwan valley incident, stating that it opposed any “unilateral attempt to change the status quo” on the Line of Actual Control.
Beijing is using its military posturing in the ECS to build pressure on Japan – a warning that continued engagement is the only way and that militarily, Japan stands with no chance. Further, the intrusions are also an extension of Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’: the revival of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ glory that how the Communist Party under Xi’s leadership is building a stronger China. Beijing’s Japan policy, particularly its maritime adventurism, highlights the connection between its economic growth and increasingly stronger nationalist demands.
To this end, what are Japan’s strategic choices in face of an assertive China? Tokyo, rightly, does not see the recent Chinese intrusions as one-offs, but as high-level decisions sanctioned by the Communist Party of China. The China threat has allowed Japan to rethink its foreign and security policy and strengthen its defence capabilities. Over the last decade or so, Japan has steadily enhanced military cooperation with like-minded states through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and other bilateral and trilateral groupings.
Supporting Australia’s inclusion in the Malabar, building a national consensus to revise the pacifist constitution while gradually preparing a stronger defence force with “first-strike capability”, the prospect of having closer defence pact with countries in ASEAN and Asia including India are viable options for Japan. However, in the face of an assertive and dominant China; Japan and its allies need to work together to enhance their security partnerships and astutely monitor the threat by China - but at no point must they portray their emerging coalition as entirely anti-China. In other words, Japan can utilize the China threat as a unifying factor to build a strong security architecture within the country and also in the Indo-Pacific while not completely breaking ties with Beijing.
Besides, stronger bilateral and mini-lateral partnerships have become an absolute strategic prerequisite for Japan in order to meet an ever-assertive China. More relevant, however, is whether Japan could afford and consider partially decoupling its economic engagement with China, in favour of increasing economic engagement with partnering countries in Indo-Pacific, particularly with India, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand.
Tokyo’s recent move to pay financial subsidies to relocate its companies out of China, primarily either to Southeast Asia or back home, is a bold decision. It may substantially reduce Japan’s dependency on China for manufacturing, by promoting alternative supply chain networks to engage in fresh manufacturing exercises that diversify risk and avoid disruption. Yet, Japan’s search for security lies in strengthening its economic and security partnership with the non-Chinese world as much as it does with balancing ties with China. Beijing will continue to test Japanese resilience regionally and globally, and the recent Chinese maritime adventurism is a part of this strategy of the Communist Party of China.
Dr. Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Dr. Panda is Series Editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia.