Growing Nationalism and Maritime Jurisdiction in the East China Sea

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 21

In early September, a Chinese fishing boat that collided with a pair of Japan Coast Guard (JCG) vessels near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands reignited a longstanding dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over the East China Sea. The captain of the Chinese trawler was detained by the JCG on suspicion of obstructing public duties. The remainder of the crew were released and returned home to a hero’s welcome in Fuzhou. At the official level, Beijing protested the seizure and repeatedly summoned the Japanese ambassador to the foreign ministry (Kyodo News, September 13). In the weeks that followed, Beijing severed high-level meetings with Japanese leaders, cancelled the second round of talks on resource exploitation in the East China Sea and cancelled a state sponsored visit to the Shanghai Expo by Japanese students. Rumors circulated that an export ban on rare earth metals to Japan and the detention of four Japanese citizens working in Northern China for filming military installations were also expressions of Beijing’s displeasure. The captain of the vessel, Zhan Qixiong, was released by Naha authorities on September 25, sparking criticism of the Naoto Kan administration from opposition political parties that have galvanized over anti-China sentiments. China responded with demands for an apology and compensation.

While crises over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are not new, this latest event is particularly troubling due to the confluence of three trends. First, it comes on the heels of China’s most assertive year on record vis-à-vis its disputed maritime claims. Beijing has adopted a hard-line posture toward rival claimants in the South China Sea and protested the deployment of the USS George Washington to the Yellow Sea. In April PLA Navy vessels conducted drills in waters near Japan and in May the JCG survey vessel Shoyo was confronted and pursued by a Chinese vessel while operating near Amami Oshima, 40 km east of Japan’s claimed median line in the East China Sea. Secondly, the strident nature of China’s response seems to be motivated in part by a desire to preempt the outpouring of popular nationalist sentiment that accompanies diplomatic crises with Japan. Finally, it comes at a time when Japan is pursuing a more activist posture toward its maritime environment, particularly as it relates to the exercise of jurisdiction. Only days after the collision, it was reported that a Japanese survey vessel was confronted by a Chinese maritime enforcement vessel in the disputed area of the East China Sea (Kyodo News, September 12). While all three factors have a long track record, their coalescence does not bode well for the stability of the East China Sea.

Domestic Pressure and the Erosion of Cooperation

The collision between the JCG vessel and the Chinese fishing vessel is a reminder of the resentment toward Japan that simmers throughout Chinese society. Although public protests were restrained by Chinese public security officials, policymakers in Beijing are clearly aware of the domestic costs of conciliation with Japan on territorial issues. On September 8, the day after the collision, a small group of protestors demonstrated outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing, while protestors from Taiwan and Xiamen prepared to go to sea. Yet, the Chinese protest vessel never left Xiamen and nationalist protests to mark the September 18 anniversary of the Mukden incident were short, sparsely attended and heavily monitored by police. The explosive Chinese reaction to Zhan’s arrest was likely designed to assuage domestic pressure for an assertive posture against Japan.

The domestic salience of sovereignty disputes with Japan has traditionally presented the most significant barrier to cooperation between the two states. It is widely speculated that the reason for the delay in the implementation of the 2008 consensus on resource development was because of the domestic reaction in China. While street protests were kept to a minimum, it appears that nationalists within government were heavily critical of the terms of the agreement, particularly the first clause under which China agreed to a joint development zone that straddled Japan’s median line. While this offer was clearly the concession that made consensus possible, it may also have rendered the agreement unworkable for Beijing.

Consequently, China and Japan have taken a step backward in the management of their boundary dispute in the East China Sea. Neither party has been forthcoming about the prospects of joint development at the Chunxiao gas field, which is located 5km from Japan’s claimed median line, in Chinese waters. In mid-January, Japanese Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya stated that Japan would take "appropriate measures" if China continued to exploit gas at Chunxiao following reports in December that a new drilling installation had been discovered (Mainichi Shimbun, April 23). The two have since entered into a war of words over the interpretation of the June 2008 agreement. Beijing maintains that the agreement calls for cooperative development of Chunxiao, while Tokyo maintains the agreement calls for joint development. In fact, the agreement calls for the joint development of an area south of the Longjing field and grants Japanese entities the right to participate in the Chunxiao project, although no details of such an arrangement have emerged. China seems to view the latter as "cooperative development," the former as "joint development." Regardless of whether this wrangling was mere semantics or a genuine misunderstanding, the naval confrontation in April appears to have been the catalyst for the first director-general level meeting on implementing the agreement since it was signed. However, China abruptly cancelled these talks in protest over the detention of the captain of the fisheries vessel (Yomiuri Shimbun, September 12). The latest crisis threatens to further exacerbate tensions in the East China Sea. China is reportedly preparing to re-start production at the Chunxiao field, which has led Tokyo to ponder "countermeasures" (Kyodo News, September 19).

These dynamics are evident following the most recent incident. It is clear that leaders in both states are now prepared to move on. An impromptu meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels between Naoto Kan and Wen Jiabao cleared the air and set the stage for a more productive meeting between defense ministers at the ASEAN+8 meeting in Hanoi. There, Toshimi Kitazawa and Liang Guanglie agreed to restart talks toward a maritime communication agreement which, in the context of more active naval postures from both states, could go a long way in preventing future crises. Yet, it appears that segments of both of populations are not ready to move on. In Japan rightwing groups staged two large scale protests in Tokyo on October 2 and October 16. Both protests witnessed calls for a more assertive Japanese policy toward the islands and were heavily critical of the Kan administration. More tellingly, poll data indicates that the Kan administration’s handling of the incident is directly responsible for the plunge in the government’s approval rating (Yomiuri Shimbun, October 5). While the extreme right in Japan exists at the margin of Japanese politics, it appears that anti-China sentiment is more diffuse across the political spectrum than it has been in the past.

Likewise, it appears that China’s reaction did not assuage domestic anger toward Japan. Large scale demonstrations occurred in Chengdu, Xian, Zhengzhou and Mianyang on October 16-17, apparently in response to reports of the nationalist protest in Tokyo. Consistent with the April 2005 protests, the last large scale outpouring of anti-Japanese sentiment, the protestors smashed Japanese storefronts and shouted anti-Japanese slogans. However, these latest protests are marked by several differences. First, these protests were aimed directly at the territorial issue, whereas protests in 2005 were aimed primarily at Japanese history textbooks and its bid for a permanent UN Security Council seat. Second, these protests were reportedly more violent as protestors scuffled with police in Wuhan and Chengdu (The Associated Press, October 18). Finally, the protests were confined to cities that did not have a Japanese consulate or other diplomatic presence. While it could be argued that this indicates a degree of central control over the expression of nationalist sentiment, reports indicated that many protestors received news of the demonstrations through Twitter and other social media. The heavy police presence surrounding the Japanese embassy in Beijing suggests that central authorities were prepared for protests in large cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing but that the scale of the protests in secondary cities caught them off guard. On balance, this latest expression of nationalist sentiment reveals that issues of disputed sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction have assumed pride of place in mindset of nationalists in both China and Japan.

The Exercise of Jurisdiction in Contested Areas

Viewed in this context, the aftermath of the collision exposes some disturbing trends that do not bode well for future stability between China and Japan at sea. Japan is more willing than ever to exercise its jurisdictional rights under the Law of the Sea. For example, Japan has typically resisted conducting surveys of disputed waters in the East China Sea for fear of offending China. In 2004, it commissioned the Ramform Victory to survey the median line area and the ship was repeatedly harassed and shadowed by the PLA Navy. As part of a more assertive posture, the Diet passed the Basic Ocean Law almost unanimously in 2007, which created the legal pretext for further exploration efforts in Japan’s claimed EEZ. The law included protocols that would allow the deployment of Japanese forces to protect resource production installations at sea. This added weight to Japan’s threats to drill on the east side of the East China Sea median line in waters Beijing describes as "disputed" (The Japan Times, August 27, 2005). The survey operation by the Shoyo was the first Japanese research operation since the height of the tensions in the East China Sea in 2005. Amidst reports that Japan is prepared to search for rare earth metals on the ocean floor, the survey indicates that asserting and exercising Japan’s maritime jurisdiction remains a priority for the DPJ government, despite its 2009 election commitment to improve relations with Beijing (Kyodo News, April 28). This could have potentially devastating consequences because from the Chinese perspective, Japan is not entitled to exercise this jurisdiction in waters claimed by China.

The causes of tension over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are thus no longer limited to unilateral acts by extreme nationalist groups—such as attempting to land on the islands—nor limited to the status of production facilities at Chunxiao. Political tensions now arise when one state exercises its maritime jurisdiction against citizens or agents of the other. A 2004 landing attempt by Chinese activists escalated when they were arrested by the JCG. China protested their arrest because the activists were protesting on Chinese soil and demanded their release. Local authorities released the protestors rather than prosecuting them under Japanese law at the behest Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. While the circumstances surrounding Zhan’s release remain unclear, the incident reveals that Japan is prepared to assert its maritime jurisdiction against China. Reports that a JCG survey vessel did not back down when confronted by a Chinese maritime enforcement vessel in disputed waters on September 11 were overshadowed by the fallout from the collision (Agence France-Presse, September 11).

The collision between the Chinese fisheries vessel and the JCG ship reflects these trends. The JCG is charged with enforcing Japan’s territorial waters jurisdiction, including those around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. However, ambiguity exists as to the frequency and tenor with which this jurisdiction is enforced. During the negotiation of the 1997 China-Japan fisheries agreement, the parties agreed that neither would enforce fisheries laws against boats from the other state operating south of 27 degrees North latitude (i.e. near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands) (Asian Wall Street Journal, September 12). In recent years, JCG vessels have been expelling Taiwanese and Chinese fishing vessels from the area with greater frequency. This leaves the understanding reached under the 1997 fisheries agreement in a state of flux. The agreement not to enforce fisheries jurisdiction against the other party near the islands has been part of the China-Japan fisheries relationship since 1955 [1], but the enforcement of territorial sea rights by Japan puts this understanding in jeopardy. Zhan was detained for violating a domestic Japanese law, by allegedly ramming the JCG vessel; this is not a violation of the fisheries agreement. Japan derives the authority to enforce its domestic laws from the fact that the collision occurred in its territorial sea. Problematically, China does not recognize that Japan has this authority, as it also claims a territorial sea around the islands. The dispatch of Chinese fisheries enforcement vessels to the islands is a disturbing development because China may attempt to assert its claimed jurisdiction around the islands as it has done in the South China Sea (Asahi Shimbun, September 11; Yomiuri Shimbun, September 28). Japan of course would see this as a violation of its territorial waters and once again be required to respond, as it did against Zhan.

This latest crisis thus occurs at a time when both Japan and China face powerful incentives for confrontation over their disputed maritime space because both states view the dominance of the East China Sea by the other as a strategic catastrophe. The continued impasse over resource development, Japan’s survey efforts and China’s training exercises need to be understood as extensions of the strategic value both parties place on the East China Sea. Control of the East China Sea is the first step of China’s blue water naval strategy. From the Japanese perspective, Chinese maritime operations, whether military drills, marine surveys, or EEZ enforcement, occur in parts of the ocean where its jurisdiction is contested. These issues are increasingly being perceived as vital to Japan’s national security. In addition to these strategic incentives for confrontation, both states confront powerful disincentives for conciliation in light of the growing domestic salience of these issues. On balance therefore, the atmosphere in maritime East Asia is becoming one in which China, and Japan are increasingly active yet dispute the basic ground rules for maritime operations. This collision and the aftermath are indicative of the kind of crises that can be expected as China and Japan enforce their maritime jurisdiction against one another in contested waters.


1. Zou Keyuan, Law of the Sea in East Asia: Issues and Prospects (London: Routledge, 2005): 91.