How China is Setting the Stage for War with Japan in the East China Sea

Beijing answers the UNCLOS ruling by baiting Tokyo.

The arbitration panel’s ruling against China on July 12 was a stinging blow to China’s international prestige. China advanced a narrative that it had historic rights to nearly all of the South China Sea (SCS) and that it could prevent states like the Philippines and Vietnam from fishing in their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and drilling for oil near their coasts. China also maintained the right to engage in island building and fishing practices which caused severe damage to the marine environment. Since these activities occurred inside of its nine dash line claim. China felt justified in these “internal matters” and told its neighbors in almost evangelical terms that the SCS is their patrimony and that no country or international body has a right to mess with their domestic affairs. On all these counts, the tribunal disagreed and issued a strong rebuke of China’s activities and has been lashing out against a variety of countries including the United States, Australia—and most importantly—Japan.

The positive signs that China was moving past the ruling have been overtaken by a number of very disturbing trends which, regardless which path China ultimately takes, puts it on a collision course with Japan, the United States or perhaps a much broader group of states. Unless something dramatic emerges as a result of the secret conclave in Beidaihe, China seems intent on settling scores with those states responsible for its legal embarrassment and loss of face in ASEAN. Japan now seems to be the likely candidate even though it is an East China Sea (ECS) power. Japan warned China’s ambassador twice in the past week that relations between the two countries were “deteriorating markedly.”

China’s Negative Reactions

Immediately after the July 12 ruling the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a detailed repudiation declaring that the ruling was “null and void,” “has no binding force” and “China neither accepts nor recognizes it.” The Chinese state media declared the permanent court of arbitration a “puppet” of external forces and that “China will take all necessary measures to protect its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.” In addition to that harsh criticism:

  • On July 13, China sent civilian aircraft to two new airports on Mischief Reef and Subi Reef in apparent violation of the ruling.  

  • On July 13, China’s vice foreign minister said “If our security is being threatened, of course we have the right demarcate a [air defense identification] zone.”

  • On July 15, China posts images of its recent overflight of the highly contested Scarborough Shoal by nuclear capable H-6K bombers (and escorts) and announced that such patrols would be a “Regular Practice.” This again is in violation of the Ruling.

  • On July 24, ASEAN failed to achieve consensus to issue a statement on the Tribunal decision after China’s ally Cambodia broke away from a consensus document that was being proposed by the Philippines, Vietnam and others.

  • On July 25, the United States, Australia, and Japan held a Trilateral Strategic Dialogue and issued a statement expressing “their strong support for the rule of law and called on China and the Philippines to abide by the Arbitral Tribunal’s Award of July 12 in the Philippines–China arbitration, which is final and legally binding on both parties.”  The ministers also expressed opposition to any coercive or unilateral actions that could alter the status quo including future land reclamation activities.

  • On July 27, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the trilateral statement and charged that the statement was not constructive and “fanning the flames.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang also charged that the United States, Australia and Japan have been adopting double standards towards international law which they adopt when it “fits their needs.”

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