Tag Archives: East China Sea

China And Japan Warm Commercial Ties As A Matter Of Convenience

CHINA-JAPAN RELATIONS have blown hot and cold since the two resumed diplomatic ties in 1972, and there is self-evidently history as to why that is the case.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s current three-day visit to Beijing is the first by a Japanese prime minister for seven years, an indication in itself that the bilateral relationship is coming out of a chilly phase. The ‘historic turning point’ lauded by the official statements is over-egging the pudding at this point.

There is a geographical logic to the trade deals agreed during the trip ($18 billion worth). This has been given additional fillip by the US administration’s imposition of tariffs on both Chinese and Japanese exports. Both neighbours need to diversify their sources of supplies and their markets as a result. They are both already among the biggest trading partners of the other and the $30 billion currency swap agreed during Abe’s visit will underpin that.

However, Japanese carmakers have not yet got the all of the better access to the Chinese market they want, and Tokyo has not provided as ringing an endorsement of the Belt and Road Initiative as China would wish.

Abe also needs to secure a better seat at the table in the discussions over North Korea, which are becoming increasingly a quadrilateral affair between Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing and Washington, sidelining Tokyo, which has a particular issue over Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea that is not shared by the other four.

The key point of conflict between Beijing and Tokyo remains their territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea known as the Diaoyu to China and the Senkaku to Japan. Anti-Japanese riots broke out in China just six years ago following moves by Japan to extend its sovereignty over the islands. Cars made by Japanese manufacturers and other Japanese products were vandalised in China. Tourism, trade and investment between the two countries fell off a cliff. Beijing froze high-level contacts.

Anti-Japanese nationalist sentiment remains a switch that Beijing can flip on or off at its convenience.

Asia’s two largest economies making common commercial cause in the face of the challenges posed by the Trump administration is one thing; resolving long-standing political differences will be another. The challenge will be greater for Japan than China, as it now has two ‘frenemies’ to deal with not one.

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High Stakes

THE BYSTANDER SUSPECTS that the aerial incident involving two Su-30 fighter jets and a US WC-135 reconnaissance plane over the East China Sea this Wednesday past has more to do with North Korea than China-US conflicts.

The American plane was on deployment sampling the atmosphere for evidence of nuclear explosions, though Beijing has accused it of unspecified ‘surveillance’ activity in airspace over the Yellow rather than the East China Sea. Whether the flight indicates that Washington is expecting another test by Pyongyang shortly or whether it was a routine radiation measurement flight, we are unsure.

It is sure, however, that the repeated flights by US warplanes near Chinese airspace are a constant irritant to Beijing, to which Washington is disinclined to pay any heed. The last occasion planes from the two sides came dangerously close was over the South China Sea in February. That may have been inadvertent, but an incident in May last year was not.

The risk from such ‘unsafe intercepts’ is a collision as happened in 2001 when a PLA-Navy pilot died after his interceptor jet hit a US Navy signals intelligence aircraft over Hainan Island. Systems were put in place after that to make such incidents less likely, and there are parallel procedures at sea-level for naval vessels. Disaster, though, will always be waiting to happen for as long as these flights continue.

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Giant Seaplanes Add To China’s Maritime Reach

AG600

THIS BYSTANDER NOTED earlier that a year ago to the month Aviation Industry Corp.’s China Aviation Industry General Aircraft subsidiary had completed the fuselage of a giant modern flying boat. That aircraft (seen above), conceived as the TA-600 Water Dragon but born as the AG600, has now rolled off the production line.

It is bigger than Japan’s Shinmaywa US-2, currently the world’s largest seaplane in service. The AG600 can carry up to 50 passengers and has a range of up to 5,000 kilometres. AVIC once said it could be modified to meet the needs of “maritime surveillance, resource detection, passenger and cargo transport”. State media now say its purpose is to “fight forest fires and perform marine rescue missions”.

We confess to not having counted how many forests there are in the South and East China Seas prone to combustion events, but any that might be blocking the PLA-Navy’s access to the blue waters of the Western Pacific, and even those as far away as Australia’s northern coast, will be within the AG600’s dousing range. Coincidentally, the country’s first indigenous large military transport aircraft, the Y-20, has a similar range.

When not fighting fires, the AG600 could, no doubt, be productively employed hopping between those islands  — or ‘rocks’, by the light of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration’s recent ruling under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — in the East and South China Seas that Beijing claims as its own.

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Nationalism Aglow

The embers of anti-Japanese sentiment are always smoldering in China. It doesn’t take much by way of political oxygen to bring them forth in full flame. Thousands of Chinese took to the streets on Sunday across several cities to protest against  Japanese nationalists landing, albeit briefly, on one of the specs of rock in disputed waters of the East China Sea known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China. Japanese flags were burned in several cities and some Japanese restaurants ransacked. In Guangzhou, the Japanese embassy was picketed. In Shenzhen, demonstrators overturned Japanese cars, including a Honda in the service of Chinese police, no doubt an unintended piece of symbolism.

Both governments have tried to keep a lid on the worst excesses of nationalist expression on both sides since 2010 when Japan arrested in 2010 the captain of a fishing boat after it collided with Japanese Coast Guard ships near the islands, chilling diplomatic and economic relations. Yet at the same time, both governments are keen to assert their sovereignty. It is not a combination that will douse the flickering embers of nationalism for good. Not that politicians in either country really want to, providing it doesn’t get out of hand. The risk is that one day it will.

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The Shipping News

Much has happened this week since Beijing and Manila announced mutual temporary fishing bans that lower the tension in their dispute over territorial claims in the South China Sea that came to a head with a stand-off near the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China). In summary:

  • Vietnam has repeated its rejection of China’s imposition of the above mentioned seasonal fishing ban in the South China Sea.
  • Beijing and Tokyo are holding a first round of talks on their maritime dispute in the East China Sea.
  • China is putting 4,000 islands to which it lays claim under real-time 3-D ariel surveillance, including 45 islands described as being “along baseline points of China’s territorial waters”.
  • Filipino oil company, Philex Petroleum, says it is seeking rigs to drill for natural gas near the Reed Bank off Palawan, waters disputed with China. China’s CNOOC might supply them.
  • North Korea has seized three Chinese trawlers in the Yellow Sea, apparently for ransom.

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South China Sea Stand-Off Takes A Worrying Turn

The standoff off the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to China) between China and the Philippines is taking a different direction to other recent territorial maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas. Previously a confrontational incident, usually involving coast guards and Chinese fishing boats, has been followed by a diplomatic defusing. This time, there has been a second phase of confrontation at sea.

The incident started a week ago when a Filippino naval cutter detained a dozen Chinese fishing vessels for fishing in disputed waters. A vessel from China Marine Surveillance (CMS), the paramilitary maritime law enforcement agency, effectively a coast guard, went to the fishermen’s aid, then a second. Manila swapped its warship for a coast guard vessel. The trawlers were allowed to leave in two batches. One coast guard vessel stayed to face off its Filippino counterpart. But then a second arrived, and on Sunday there was reportedly overflights by Chinese planes.

All these incidents in disputed waters are tests of the other claimants’ will to defend their claims to the disputed waters–and the riches that lie below. They are mostly driven by the more nationalist and military sections of government. The danger is that one will spin out of control. As we suggested earlier, this latest incident is not just a test of Manila but also of Washington’s willingness to back its regional allies. The Philippines and the U.S. are now undertaking joint naval exercises in the area, though these were planned before the stand-off started, and are not happening in disputed waters). For its part, CMS now says it will step up its patrols in the South China Sea. (The BBC has this map of who claims what and where the claims overlap.)

Without a region-wide settlement of the question, something that ASEAN has been trying to broker without success, these incidents at sea will continue, as will the risk of one of them escalating. The more the uniformed services take matters into their own hands, the greater that risk becomes.

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Japan Gives Its Coast Guard New Powers In Waters Claimed By Beijing

When in 2010 Japan’s Coast Guard seized a Chinese trawler, the Minjinyu 5179, in disputed waters of the East China Sea close to the islands Japanese call the Senkaku and Chinese the Diaoyu it caused a diplomatic row that bought relations between Tokyo and Beijing to a testy and very public low. Repeat incidents since have been dealt with more discretely. But now Japan’s Coast Guard is being given greater powers by the country’s parliament to seize or expel ‘suspicious’ vessels in its waters, including in disputed waters claimed by Japan, more discretion over the use of weapons in such incidents and fresh powers to interrogate suspects on land.

The legislation appears aimed directly at China and comes in the wake of other moves to bolster Japan’s Self-Defence Forces in response to Beijing’s perceived military build-up in the region. We shall be watching to see how Beijing chooses to react to the Coast Guard’s new powers as a bellwether of the current state of bilateral relations. A few days ago, a visit to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands by Okinawa officials brought a swift complaint from Beijing while a group of Chinese activists attempted to sail there to protest against the Japanese visit.

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China Expands Fleet To Protect Maritime Rights

In a move that is unlikely to calm any neighboring anxieties, China says it is increasing the size of its fleet that patrols the seas around its shores. A new high-speed surveillance cutter was launched this week, with three dozen more ships to follow, according to state media. That will boost the size of the Marine Surveillance fleet, a paramilitary agency of the State Oceanic Administration, by more than a third, as best as this Bystander can tell. The picture above shows the new vessel at anchor at Guangzhou, home port of the Marine Surveillance flotillas covering the South China Sea; the East China Sea flotillas are based in Shanghai and those for the Bohai and Yellow Seas in Qingdao.

Xinhua says that China has fallen behind countries like Japan and South Korea in its ability to protect its maritime rights. Beijing and Tokyo locked horns in September over a Chinese trawler detained by the Japanese Coast Guard in disputed waters of the East China Sea. China has already increased the number of fisheries patrol boats there in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands that it claims as the Diaoyu Islands and off which lie rich fishing grounds and potentially richer undersea oil, gas and mineral deposits.

China also has maritime claims around the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea that are disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. These claims were prominent durning Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s trip to Vietnam, where he urged a “proper handling of the South China Sea issue”. The newly launched patrol ship, which will be the fastest in the fleet, a 77-meter, 1,290 ton cutter equipped with satellite technology, is headed for those waters. Hanoi will be looking on with interest bordering on concern. Washington will be watching this new watcher, too.

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Japan Defuses Trawler Row, Moves On To Next China Test

It looks, as this Bystander suggested yesterday, that arms have been discreetly twisted. Japanese prosecutors say that the continuing detention of Zhan Qixiong, a Chinese fishing trawler captain at the center of a row between the two countries, would be “inappropriate considering the impact on relations with China”. Beijing, which has sent a plane to bring Zhan home, had been increasingly strident in its demand that the captain should be released unconditionally, its hard line returning Sino-Japanese relations to the icy state of recent years from which they were just starting to thaw.

The Japanese formulation sidesteps the question of whether charges would be brought or not, and thus the validity of Japan’s legal jurisdiction which is the heart of the issue as the incident took place in disputed waters near unoccupied islets in the East China Sea that Japan administers as the the Senkaku Islands and China claims as the Diaoyu Islands. Tokyo can present itself as not backing down but acting reasonably for a greater good. “Our ties are important and both sides must work to enhance our strategic and mutual beneficial relations,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku told Reuters news agency. Whatever. That this minor incident escalated into a major row shows how much work needs to be done.

Meanwhile, both sides have confirmed that four Japanese men have been detained in China on suspicion of illegally filming in a military area in northern Hebei. Japanese foreign ministry officials say the quartet work for a Japanese construction company that is bidding for a contract to dispose of World War II era chemical weapons. Local state security authorities say their investigations are continuing. How Beijing deals with this matter should give an indication how it wants to calibrate its relationship with Tokyo in the immediate future, but we also expect it to continue to test where the boundaries of that relationship lie as it grows as East Asia’s dominant power.

Update: With Zhan back on Chinese soil, Beijing has demanded a formal apology from Japan and compensation for the captain’s detention; Tokyo has declined on both counts.

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East China Sea’s Disputed Waters Get Busier

In another ratcheting up of the diplomatic dispute between Beijing and Tokyo following the detention of a Chinese fishing trawler by Japanese coast guards last week, foreign ministry officials say what they call  marine surveillance ships have been sent into the disputed waters of the East China Sea “to enhance law enforcement activities” and to “safeguard [China’s] marine rights and interests”.

The Foreign Ministry also confirmed that what it describes as maintenance work is to be carried out in the Chunxiao natural gas field, one of four in the East China Sea that straddle the disputed maritime border.  (On the map above, the field runs along the edge of the shelf to the north west of Naha in Okinawa.) Outgoing Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said earlier this week that what appeared to be drilling equipment had been taken to the field. Japan accepts that the Chinese oil and gas companies that operate the field, CNOOC and Sinopec, are working in Chinese waters, but is concerned that they might be draining deposits that lie on what Japan says is its side of the border. Talks on a treaty to jointly develop the disputed gas field, due to have been held this month, were suspended as a result of last week’s trawler incident.

The trawler, the Minjinyu 5179, and its crew have been released by the Japanese, with the vessel returning to Japan on Wednesday. Its captain remains in detention pending a decision by Japanese prosecutors on whether to bring charges.

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