China's New Challenge to the U.S.-Japan Alliance

Report Asia

China's New Challenge to the U.S.-Japan Alliance

July 13, 2004 6 min read
John Tkacik
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

As Chinese warships and naval survey vessels ply Japanese waters hoping to stake their claim to potentially gas-rich seabeds, the United States is sending mixed signals to Japan on the U.S.-Japan alliance. Ambiguity in Washington may undermine Japanese confidence in the alliance-in itself, a major strategic goal for Beijing. Washington must now publicly support Japan, our most important ally in Asia, if it hopes to deter China from further adventurism in Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone.


Provocative Behavior

On Tuesday, July 6, Japanese antisubmarine aircraft spotted a Chinese naval survey vessel, the Nandiao 411, well within Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Chinese foreign ministry declined to comment on the incursion, saying it had not received any report of naval survey activities. 


On July 13, Japanese coast guard cutters discovered a Chinese civilian research vessel, the Xiangyanghong 9, within the EEZ and engaged in survey operations for which it had not sought, much less obtained, Japanese government permission-a possible violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).[1] Japanese aircraft ordered the vessel to leave the area, but the Chinese ship refused to respond. 


Even more ominously, on July 14, a Chinese naval vessel overtook a Japanese resource exploration ship inside the EEZ, forcing it to alter its route to avoid a collision.[2] 


The Chinese navy has made a habit of traversing Japanese waters for the past two years, and Chinese ships and submarines have been particularly assertive in the past year. In January, the Japanese government declassified a report that Chinese naval vessels had entered the EEZ six times during 2003 "to survey subsea routes for Chinese submarines to enter the Pacific." These incursions include two violations of Japan's territorial waters by Ming class submarines in the vicinity of Kagoshima at the southern tip of Kyushu. So far this year, Japan's Self Defense Forces have documented at least twelve violations of the EEZ, including three separate incursions northwest of the Senkaku Islands in May alone.


Alarmed by China's presence in Japanese waters, Tokyo will soon dispatch a civilian survey vessel-looking for natural gas-to the area near the Senkaku Islands (which China calls "Diaoyutai") to assert its own EEZ rights. Beijing's foreign ministry protested this news, claiming that the EEZ is "disputed." It warned Tokyo not to take "any action that may imperil China's interest and complicate the current situation."


The Chinese navy's sudden assertiveness-indeed aggressiveness-in Japanese waters is a test of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Washington must be careful not to confront this challenge with its traditional studied ambiguity. Ambiguous support for an ally against China's increasingly provocative territorial encroachments will encourage China to become more aggressive not just in Japanese waters, but also in the South China Sea and, of course, the Taiwan Strait.


China Has No Claim

The status of the Senkakus is clear. Japan first claimed the uninhabited and unclaimed islets in question in 1895 to use their rocky outcroppings for maritime navigation aids. From that time through the end of World War II, they were administered as part of Japan's Okinawa prefecture. Upon the Japanese surrender, the United States administered the islets under a military occupation authority. In 1972, when the United States returned Okinawa to Japanese administration, the Senkakus were included in the reversion. There is, accordingly, no doubt that the United States has always regarded the islands as Japanese.


China and Taiwan have expressed interest in the islands since only 1968, when a United Nations Economic Commission for Asia report suggested there may be petroleum deposits in the seabed near the islets. (No petroleum or gas deposits have since been detected in the area.) On June 11, 1971, the Republic of China on Taiwan formally claimed the islands. After the United States returned the islands to Japan in the 1972 Okinawa Reversion Agreement, China lodged a formal protest with the U.S. government. Eager not to alienate Beijing just as President Nixon was beginning his opening to China, the U.S. State Department announced that the Reversion Agreement "did not affect the sovereignty" over disputed islands.


As recently as March 2004, the State Department accepted China's claims over the Senkakus as being equally valid as Japan's title. Still, in a stance known affectionately in Japan as the "Armitage Doctrine," U.S. officials have said that the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty covers "all territories under the administration of Japan" and there is no question that, as a matter of law-under the Reversion Agreement, the alliance treaty, and the terms of the U.S. military occupation of the Ryukyu island chain-that the Senkakus are indeed "under the administration of Japan." As such, any hostile activities against the islands would trigger the treaty.


In this context, China's forays into the Senkakus seem designed to probe where the bedrock of the U.S.-Japan alliance begins-or if it is there at all. Of course, Chinese survey vessels are also mapping the ocean bottom for the benefit of the country's rapidly expanding submarine fleet.


Steps for the Administration

  • State clearly that the Senkakus are covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.
    The United States cannot expect to avoid a showdown with China and Japan over the islands by continuing to tell China that it "takes no position on the matter of sovereignty over the Senkakus." This only encourages China to force a confrontation with Japan over the islets, which will either draw the United States into the fray on Japan's side or risk the collapse of the U.S.-Japan alliance-an event China devoutly hopes to see.

    The Administration must state firmly and publicly not only that the Senkakus are covered under the alliance and that the United States will support Japan's claim as a matter of law, but also that the United States sees a prima facie case supporting Japan's claims to sovereignty over the islands. While this would irritate Beijing, it would also be a clear message that the United States plans to remain a Pacific power and that Beijing's aggressive territorial claims are counterproductive. Any continued confrontations in the area would be ample evidence of Beijing's broader ambitions in Asia. Better to know now, than later. Either way, the United States must stand firmly and unequivocally with Japan.
  • Assist the Japanese Self Defense Forces in monitoring Chinese incursions.
    While China's naval forays into Japan's EEZ are perfectly legal under international law, Chinese oil and natural gas surveys are not. U.S. Naval forces should join Japanese forces in actively monitoring Chinese maritime operations in Japanese waters, as a demonstration of alliance strength and to dissuade China from believing testing the EEZ boundaries is cost-free.

The United States should view with alarm China's increasing aggressiveness in the Western Pacific and its continuing challenges to long-established maritime boundaries. The seabeds that China now claims have been under Japanese sovereignty for over a century. The United States has, over past years, reportedly reassured Japan that the territorial waters China now claims-and the islands they encompass-fall within the ambit of Japanese administration and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. The United States should make this point firmly and thereby confront China's provocations with clarity instead of ambiguity. 


John Tkacik, Jr., is Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

[1]Article 56 of the UNCLOS limits such coastal state jurisdiction to "exploring…the natural resources" of the EEZ. Articles 95 and 96 assert complete immunity on the high seas-and, under Article 58, in EEZs-for warships and ships "used only on government, non-commercial service." For the full text and overview, see United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, of December 10, 1982.

[2] "Jiefangjun zai Donghai Dujie Riben Tansuochuan" [PLA intercepts Japanese exploration ship in the East China Sea], New York, World Journal in Chinese, July 14, 2004, P. A8, cites a Keizai Shimbun wire service report from Tokyo.


John Tkacik

Former Senior Research Fellow