Waves of tension in East China Sea

China accused of intrusions by vessels and unsafe intercept of US plane

The disputed group of islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
The disputed group of islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO • A string of incidents in and over the East China Sea points to renewed tensions between Japan and China over territory, just as a new survey underlines the animosity between Asia's two largest economies.

Japan's Vice-Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki summoned Chinese ambassador Cheng Yonghua in the early hours yesterday after a Chinese frigate entered the "contiguous zone" just outside Japan-administered waters surrounding contested islands. No Chinese naval vessel has previously been observed there.

"This is a one-sided act that increases tensions," Japanese Defence Minister Gen Nakatani told reporters. "I am seriously concerned," he said, according to Kyodo News.

China's defence ministry said it was aware of the reports.

"The Diaoyu islands are China's inherent territory," it said in a statement on its website, using China's name for the islands. "It is legitimate and legal for Chinese vessels to sail in waters within our own jurisdiction. Other countries have no right to make carping remarks."

The previous day, three Chinese coast guard vessels entered what Japan regards as its territorial waters. Meanwhile, the United States said Chinese fighter planes on Tuesday unsafely intercepted a reconnaissance flight in international airspace over the East China Sea, CNN reported. China's foreign ministry said the US was deliberately hyping the jet encounter.

A contiguous zone is an area of water that extends as far as 24 nautical miles out from territorial seas. While considered international waters, countries claiming such a zone exercise control over the area for various purposes, including Customs and sanitation.

Japan and China are embroiled in a dispute over uninhabited islets located near Taiwan, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, with the Japanese government buying three of them in 2012 from a private landowner, leading to a rise in tensions.

While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has succeeded in calming the mood enough to hold two summits with President Xi Jinping, the recent incidents risk reigniting frictions. Complicating the situation for Tokyo, three Russian naval vessels also sailed close to the islands at around the same time as the Chinese warship yesterday, raising concern in Japan of a coordinated show of force by Beijing and Moscow.

Russia and Japan are locked in a separate territorial dispute over the return of islands seized by Moscow at the end of World War II.

Tensions over territory are rising in Asia before an international court ruling on a case brought by the Philippines over a separate territorial dispute between China and other nations in the South China Sea, which could affect China's behaviour in waters through which more than US$5 trillion (S$6.7 trillion) of trade passes each year.

China has said it does not recognise the jurisdiction of the Hague tribunal and will not abide by an unfavourable ruling.

The developments come as a survey of five Asian nations shows continuing ill feeling between China and Japan despite growing opportunities to interact through business and tourism. Fifty-six per cent of Chinese respondents picked Japan as the most likely to initiate hostilities in Asia, compared with only 9 per cent who picked North Korea, according to the survey conducted by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney published this month.

Thirty-seven per cent of Japanese respondents picked China as the most likely instigator, compared with 50 per cent who chose North Korea.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2016, with the headline 'Waves of tension in East China Sea'. Subscribe