(Kanagawa Shimbun: January 1, 2016 – p. 3)
Japanese and Chinese defense authorities are negotiating a “maritime liaison mechanism” to prevent accidental military clashes, and China has asked to discuss including the territorial waters and airspace of Okinawa’s Senkaku Islands in the areas to be covered by the mechanism. The bilateral consultations have stalled over this, and it was learned on Dec. 31 that the launch of the mechanism, which originally had been set for 2015, will be postponed. Several sources familiar with Japan-China relations reported this.
China claims territorial rights to the Senkaku Islands and has repeatedly sent China Coast Guard vessels into Japanese territorial waters. It is clear that China is trying to strengthen its territorial claim through the maritime liaison mechanism, and this Chinese stance is making it difficult for an agreement on the mechanism to be reached.
In past consultations, the Chinese have raised for discussion the issue of how the maritime liaison mechanism should work in relation to preventing clashes in the Senkaku area, according to several people involved in the negotiations. In response, the Japanese stress that the Senkakus belong to Japan and any incursion into their territorial waters or airspace constitutes a violation of Japan’s sovereignty.
For Japan, if the Senkakus are included in the areas covered by the mechanism, Japan’s core position that “no territorial issue requiring resolution exists in relation to the Senkakus” would be destroyed, and there are concerns that it could open the door to joint control of the Senkakus in the future, which is thought to be what China desires.
For this reason, the Japanese side does not want to include the territorial waters and airspace of the Senkakus in the areas to be covered by the mechanism, even though Japan bears the real risk that a clash may be triggered by the intrusion of Chinese vessels in its territorial waters.
Japan and China agree that there is a need to avoid clashes in the East China Sea, as witnessed by the fact that they confirmed at their summit meeting in November that they would endeavor to launch the mechanism as soon as possible. At the talks between foreign policy and defense authorities held in China in December, though, the two nations were unable to bridge their differences, and the wording of the agreement is still being deliberated.
A basic agreement has been reached over the content of the maritime liaison mechanism: (1) The two nations will contact each other in English in emergency situations, and (2) a hotline will be set up between Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the Chinese military. Moreover, almost all technical issues [related to implementation of the mechanism] have been resolved. Also included in the liaison mechanism talks are measures to prevent clashes in the airspace.
Aiming to destroy Japan’s effective control
Behind China’s insistence that the Senkakus be included in the areas covered by the maritime liaison mechanism lies China’s goal of destroying Japan’s effective control of the Senkakus. It is clear that China’s aim is to increase its involvement in the Senkakus by skillfully taking advantage of the tensions in the East China Sea.
Since the Japanese government nationalized the Senkaku Islands in September 2012, intrusions into Japan’s territorial waters by Chinese vessels have become the norm. In 2014, there was a series of tense incidents, including Chinese military fighter planes flying abnormally close to SDF fighter planes. In light of this, Japan and China resumed their talks on the maritime liaison mechanism in January 2015.
The Japanese government wants to prevent an unforeseen event from happening in the territorial waters and airspace of the Senkakus. If Japan were to agree to consultations on whether to include the Senkakus in the areas covered by the mechanism, as China requests, though, it would be a blow to Japan’s territorial rights. Sovereignty over the Senkakus is a nonnegotiable for Japan, and Japan is working behind the scenes to find some “point of compromise” with China.
Japan and China share the desire to start operation of the mechanism as soon as possible and are accelerating negotiations aimed at concluding the agreement. It is possible that the language concerning the Senkakus will end up being vague.