East China Sea: Preventing Clashes from Becoming 
East China Sea: Preventing Clashes from Becoming 
Chinese marine surveillance ship Haijian No. 51 (C) sails near Japan Coast Guard vessels (R and L) and a Japanese fishing boat (front 2nd L), East China Sea, 1 July 2013. REUTERS/Kyodo
Chinese marine surveillance ship Haijian No. 51 (C) sails near Japan Coast Guard vessels (R and L) and a Japanese fishing boat (front 2nd L), East China Sea, 1 July 2013. REUTERS/Kyodo
Report / Asia 4 minutes

East China Sea: Preventing Clashes from Becoming 

Dangerous aerial and naval encounters are rising as China and Japan spar over disputed islands in the East China Sea. A promising reconciliation process has floundered. To prevent an accident tipping the dispute into open hostility, both sides urgently need a credible crisis management protocol to insulate any negotiations from their broader rivalry.

Executive Summary

As China-Japan relations oscillate between hostility and détente, a credible crisis management protocol is urgently needed to manage the increasing, unplanned contacts between their military aircraft and ships. Despite intermittent negotiations, the two have been unable to agree on a maritime and air communication mechanism to help fill this gap. After suspension due to the 2012 Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, China agreed to resume talks on the mechanism, comprising a hotline, meetings between defence authorities and communication protocols between forward military units in 2014. Dangerously close military aerial encounters appear to have played a fundamental role in the decision, but negotiations soon stalled over the area the mechanism would cover, an issue with implications for the dispute over the islands’ sovereignty. Resentment arising from other aspects of the relationship hardened China against compromise. With a prickly bilateral détente now in place, however, the two governments should prioritise crisis management and insulate the negotiations from their broader rivalry.

The need for crisis management is growing. The air forces are coming into contact more frequently, as each attempts to administer the overlapping Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZ). Several close calls have already occurred. The navies are also increasingly in contact, as China sends ships further from its shores with greater regularity. Encounters around the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, East China Sea and Western Pacific will continue. Different national operating guidelines, applied in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust, exacerbate the risks of miscalculation. Nationalism, increasingly institutionalised distrust on both sides and limited opportunities to build trust through military exchanges make it harder to prevent rapid escalation of hostilities should a deadly incident transpire.

Meanwhile, both sides are enhancing their military capabilities in the East China Sea. China is expanding its naval and air operations further into open waters in a bid to extend its maritime footprint to the Western Pacific, and Japan is shoring up the defences of its south-western island chain in response. Bolstered by the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, the Abe administration pushed through more proactive security legislation – the most significant shift in Japan’s defence posture since the end of the Second World War.

Against this backdrop, China and Japan need to seize the opportunity proffered by their current fragile reconciliation to establish crisis management ties. China should delink the subject from the political relationship and sovereignty questions: an unplanned clash with Japan would neither benefit its goal of achieving peripheral stability nor safeguard its rights. Japan should continue to engage and avoid inflammatory remarks that increase political risks for moderates in China. Staged implementation of the proposed mechanism, beginning with the hotline, could be a near-term confidence-building measure. Fundamental mistrust makes true reconciliation unlikely in the near future, but there is common interest in preventing or limiting an accidental crisis that would harm the political, security and economic interests of both. China and Japan should thus launch the maritime and air communication mechanism as soon as possible.


To enable agreement on the Maritime and Air Communication Mechanism 

To the governments of China and Japan:

  1. Instruct front-line personnel, in the mechanism’s absence, to adhere to protocols in the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), to which both are party. 
  2. Discuss concerns about risk of collision by fishing boats and/or coast guard vessels in waters around the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the High-Level Consultations on Maritime Affairs, a multi-agency forum that includes the coast guard. 
  3. Restart vice-ministerial-level defence exchanges and resume exchanges between defence universities and research organisations.
  4. China should delink Diaoyu/Senkaku sovereignty from the mechanism negotiations. 
  5. Japan should refrain from comments or actions which suggest revisionist views of history and a departure from the Murayama Statement, its 1995 official apology for wartime aggression, and immediately distance itself from provocative statements made by officials and politicians. 
  6. Japan should maintain an open dialogue with Beijing over the enhancement of its south-western defences and refrain from negatively publicising China’s lawful military activities, such as legitimate overflights and naval transits. 

To ensure effective implementation 

To the governments of China and Japan:

  1. Keep the hotline open at all times and ensure responsible persons/units have authority to reach decision-makers and front-line personnel quickly in an emergency and to make decisions to contain and de-escalate the crisis; and utilise the hotline in case of an incident before resorting to public criticism.
  2. Give front-line operators adequate training and hold those who violate the rules accountable.
  3. Increase direct contact between front-line troops and personnel by:
    1. organising a second round of mutual naval visits; and
    2. stepping-up participation in multilateral training forums based on CUES, such as the Western Pacific Naval Symposium and others.
  4. Agree to address violations first bilaterally, including in defence authority meetings, so as to maximise space for resolution, rather than arguing them in the media.
  5. Consider incorporating guidelines for behaviour other than communications within the mechanism later, possibly based on those included within the 2014 U.S.-China defence memorandums or CUES.

To third-party governments and non-governmental institutions, such as research organisations, private groups and think-tanks with ties to both parties:

  1. Host forums that bring the parties together for discussions on crisis management and mitigation, including by;
    1. organising workshops to review CUES and other international naval and air agreements containing guidelines on rules of behaviour; 
    2. facilitating the sharing of best practices to avoid incidents at sea, whether in forums, symposiums or joint research projects; and
    3. encouraging participation by both coast guards and militaries, especially commanders in charge of front-line operations.
  2. Organise multilateral naval exercises on CUES implementation involving both China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF).

Beijing/Tokyo/Brussels, 30 June 2016

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