Tense Skies and Seas: What Chinese Actions Indicate About its Disputes with Japan and Taiwan

BY BRIAN BLONDER 

China’s military exercise on July 14th in which 6 H-6 bombers flew through the Miyako Strait, a strait very close to Japanese islands through which Chinese military vessels and planes can pass through, has once again highlighted the issue of Chinese incursions into the airspace and territorial waters of its neighbors. In recent years, Chinese violations of air and sea space have occurred with its disputant neighbors, namely Japan and Taiwan, but also with the states of the South China Sea region, where many overlapping claims make violations of air and sea space a dangerous phenomenon.

While this recent flythrough did not violate Japanese airspace, Japan scrambled its jets a record 851 times in FY2016 in response to Chinese violations. Coupled with these airspace violations are the monthly violations of Japan’s territorial sea, with an average of 7-12 Chinese ships a month entering these waters, predominantly around the Senkaku Islands. These violations have remained consistent for years. Taiwan, on the other hand, has experienced a notably lower amount of incidents with China. Except for occasional incidents in 2015, 2016 and 2017, one must go back to 2014 for news on serious incidents.

The difference in frequency of violations of Japanese airspace versus the Taiwanese one is noteworthy given the similarities of the countries’ situations. Both have disputes with China which have gone on for a very similar time period (since the late 1940s), both are weaker than China, and both rely on the protection of the United States.

Japan’s dispute with China is chiefly over a group of islands near Taiwan called Senkaku by Japan, Diaoyu by China and Diaoyutai by Taiwan. China, Japan, and to a lesser extent, Taiwan claim sovereignty over the islands, with Japan possessing and administering them. The tensions this dispute causes, combined with residual tensions from Japan’s troubled history with China, are a major inhibitor of lasting stable relations.

Taiwan’s dispute with China is over its sovereignty. China considers Taiwan to be a part of China, while Taiwan’s views range from the legitimate government of China to an independent nation depending whom you talk to. Stemming from the disagreement over legitimacy, this sensitive dispute has prevented China and Taiwan from having protracted stable political relations. China’s overarching fear regarding Taiwan is that it will attempt to break away from China for good and declare independence, with China publicly reserving the right to use force against Taiwan to prevent this from occurring.

The discrepancy in violations can be explained in part by how the world views the two disputes. The way the world views the disputes plays a role in how Chinese perceive them and how much weight China puts on one versus the other.

With Panama establishing diplomatic relations with China in June 2017 and breaking relations with Taiwan, Taiwan is currently only recognized by 20 nations. While many nations such as the United States have unofficial diplomatic relations with Taiwan, reducing the number of official diplomatic relations Taiwan has served to limit its diplomatic maneuverability, and makes any attempt at independence all but impossible since no major country will recognize it. The fact that the world recognizes China over Taiwan, coupled with the fact that China already views Taiwan to be part of China reduces the necessity of constant airspace violations to establish dominance.

The situation with the dispute with Japan is different. Because other countries recognize Japan’s control over the Senkaku Islands, and the United States has committed to defending the islands under the U.S-Japan Security Treaty, China’s claims on the islands are less tenable. As a result, China’s objectives regarding the islands are to use its size and military to apply enough pressure on Japan to relinquish control of the islands, meaning that China applies a heavier hand here. In 2013, tensions between the two nations reached a dangerous level when a Chinese frigate placed a Japanese naval vessel within its weapons-targeting radar. This helps to explain the number of Chinese violations of Japanese airspace and waters and why it is much higher than the number of incidents with Taiwan. The constant scrambling of Japanese jets and ships is meant to provide Japan with a constant reminder of Chinese power and consequently, to reduce Japan’s confidence in its ability to protect the islands.

Some pundits may be quick to argue that Taiwan’s relations with China are more peaceful than China’s relations with Japan, using the fact that the last serious military crisis between the two was in 1996. Further examination of this line of argument, using the period of FY 2016, concludes that there was a period of simultaneous heightened tensions between China-Japan and China-Taiwan. This was the same period that saw the record number of Japanese scrambles against China. During this period, China suspended diplomatic contact with Taiwan over President Tsai Ing-Wen’s refusal to explicitly accept the 1992 Consensus, which stated that there was “One China” with different interpretations of what that meant. This shows that while both experienced tensions with China, a record number of incidents between China and Taiwan did not occur.

China’s actions in its disputes with Taiwan and Japan reveal how differently China views them and how much weight China places on each one. The Chinese incursions into Japanese and Taiwanese airspace and waters continue to act as a key way that China projects power upon both and serves as a reminder of China’s military might. While Japanese scrambles against Chinese planes have been down 98 between April-June 2017 compared to the same period in 2016, Japan still scrambled its jets around 1-2 times a day in that period. China’s actions will continue to keep Japan, and to a lesser extent Taiwan, on edge and will invariably fuel instability in an already unstable region.

Image source: ejinsight.com

About the Author 

Brian Blonder is an intern with the Eurasian Conflicts Studies (formerly Armed Conflicts) Project at the ERA Institute. 

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

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