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Commentary: Tense frontline of Senkaku defense

By Shigeyuki Ii, editorial writer


Tensions are rising in the East China Sea. Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing boats simultaneously intruded into Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands early this month. At one point, as many as 230 fishing boats and more than 10 coast guard vessels remained within Japanese territorial waters and contiguous zone. Despite repeated protests by the Japanese government, China is intentionally raising tensions. This is something extraordinary.


China’s aim is obvious. In the lawsuit filed by the Philippines, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague completely dismissed China’s claim last month. Japan, in cooperation with the U.S., is calling on China to comply with the ruling. In response, China seems to be taking retaliatory measures against Japan in the East China Sea.


The court ruling based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea dealt a heavy blow to China, which claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea. The court decided that China unilaterally claims historical rights and violates international laws, ruling that it does not recognize reefs reclaimed by China as “islands” under international law; therefore, China cannot claim an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the artificial islands..


China’s largest miscalculation is that the court dismissed the legal ground for its sovereignty over areas inside “Nine-Dash Line” surrounding most of the South China Sea. The court handed down a clearer ruling than anticipated.


The Nine-Dash Line that China began claiming around the 1950s surrounds a large swath of ocean, including waters off Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. China used the line as the basis for effectively controlling by force the Paracel Islands in the 1950s and the Spratly Islands in the 1980s. The court rejected the legal basis in the latest ruling. It is significant that an international judicial organization said “No” to China, which is attempting to change the status quo by force. “The ruling badly tarnished China’s national image,” said Shin Kawashima, a professor at the graduate school of the University of Tokyo, in a piece contributed to the magazine Chuokoron entitled “The ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration over the South China Sea issue and China’s response.” “However, whether the ruling will have the power to change China’s behavior is questionable.”


“The court did not intend to render a final conclusion on the territorial issue,” Kawashima went on to say. “It only made a judgment on China’s claim in light of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.” The professor continued: “If the parties concerned don’t accept the ruling, it will not be binding or forcible,” presenting a pessimistic view about China.


Immediately after the ruling, Beijing released a statement, strongly denouncing the judicial decision. The Xinhua News Agency called the ruling “a piece of wastepaper” in its editorial. Shi Ping, a visiting professor to Takushoku University, believes that China’s  high-handed stance will isolate the country from the international community. In his contribution entitled “The fiasco of Xi Jinping’s diplomacy” to the monthly “Voice,”  the professor said, “China’s obstinate stance of not accepting the ruling by the court of arbitration in the first place makes it impossible for Beijing to compromise with the Philippines in bilateral dialogues.”


Furthermore, Shi added: “China made the diplomatic stance of ‘not accepting the ruling’ a condition for dialogue with the Philippines. As a result, Manila, which was at first ready to have dialogue with Beijing, became angry. Thus the PRC nipped in the bud the possibility of bilateral dialogue.”


“What has happened in the South China Sea will happen in the East China Sea as well,” warned Tokai University professor Yoshihiko Yamada in his contribution to the monthly “Will” titled “China will make the waters around the Senkakus the site of a sea battle.” “That is China’s conventional step,” said the professor.


Yamada emphasized the importance of surveillance in the areas of the Senkaku Islands. “In order to divert public attention from the arbitration court’s ruling, China will intensify its activities in the East China Sea,” pointed out Yamada, as if he anticipated China’s recent activities.


“Japan has benefited from utilizing sea routes through the South China Sea,” said Yamada. “In order to maintain the benefits, Japan should actively be involved in international efforts to deter conflicts, protect the marine environment, and secure navigation safety in the area,” calling for the Japanese government’s resolute stance.


In response to China’s blatant provocative actions, the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) is at the frontline of the defense of Japan’s territorial waters. Former JCG commandant Yuji Sato explained in his contribution “JCG will defend the Senkakus” to the monthly Bungeishunju that “the Chinese government and civilian fishing boats are connected via a GPS system with e-mail function given by the government so that they can receive the government’s instructions simultaneously and let the government know their locations,” which indicates their actions are orchestrated.


What is encouraging is that the high morale of JCG personnel assigned to defend the Senkakus. It is essential that the government continue beefing up security arrangements for the Senkakus with a strong resolve to protect the islands, which will be Japan’s firm message to China. (Slightly Abridged)

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