Chinese ships cruise disputed Japanese islands: How will the US respond?

Chinese ships sailed near the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, on the heels of a warning from US Defense Secretary James Mattis that the US would defend Japanese territory.

P Photo/Kyodo News, File
Chinese coast guard ships sailed near these tiny islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, seen here in a 2012 file photo.

Days after Defense Secretary James Mattis promised that the US would back Japan in its territorial disputes, China may be testing the boundaries of that policy.

Three Chinese Coast Guard ships crossed into Japanese-claimed waters in the East China Sea on Monday, prompting complaints from Japan, according to CNN. Japanese authorities said the ships spent two hours near the Senkaku islands, a chain administered by Japan but claimed by China.

China acknowledged the presence of the ships, but asserted its claim to the waters, saying the ships “cruised within China’s Diaoyu Islands territorial sea," using the Chinese name for the islands.

The incident came two days after Secretary Mattis stood side by side with his Japanese counterpart and signaled continued US commitment to the US-Japan Security Treaty, which includes defending Japan and the territories it administers.

Such tensions are far from uncommon: This is the fourth time China has entered Japanese waters this year, according to the Japanese Coast Guard. But given the uncertainty around the Trump administration’s foreign policy in Asia before Mattis’s visit, the move may be a calculated effort by China to elucidate how far the Trump administration will actually go to defend the United States’ traditional allies in the region.

"It is both a signal that China won't be intimidated from defending its interests/claims and a test to see how the new [Trump] administration responds," Carl Schuster, a professor at Hawaii Pacific University and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center, told CNN.

On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump threatened to roll back US security commitments in Asia. He criticized the US-Japan Security Treaty, which Mattis has now pledged to uphold, saying Japan should be making a greater financial contribution to the two countries’ security. At the same time, he and his team have been confrontational toward China: President Trump accused China of stealing American jobs and became the first leader to speak openly with the Taiwanese president since the US adopted the “One China” policy in 1979.

Key administration officials have also spoken out on these issues, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seeming to advocate a blockade of Beijing’s man-made islands in the South China Sea during his confirmation hearing in January.

“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed,” Secretary Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In less public forums, Tillerson has since softened these comments, the Japan Times reported.

Mattis, dispatched to Japan and South Korea on the first official visit by a senior member of Mr. Trump’s national security team, was tasked with smoothing relations with allies while avoiding escalating regional tensions further. While promising support to Japan, he expressed caution about the necessity for military involvement.

“There is no need ... at this time for military maneuvers or something like that,” said Mattis, calling for diplomats to make the first attempt at de-escalating tensions, The New York Times reported.

And while other members of the Trump team may have been more hawkish in the past, experts suggest that Mattis' approach may be the shape of US policy in Asia going forward. In large part, that’s because the risks involved with military escalation are just too great.

"The danger is especially high considering military personnel on both sides are often eager to demonstrate their determination to defend what they consider national territory," Denny Roy, an Asian security expert at the East-West Center in Honolulu, told CNN.

Cooperation has been important in the past, Taylor Fravel, an associate professor of political science at MIT who studies China’s territorial disputes, previously told The Christian Science Monitor’s Michael Holtz.

“Over the last three years China and US have developed a level of cooperation that may have the effect of reducing a major accident from occurring,” he said. “Deepening that relationship is very important. It’s not an inherently stable situation."

As a result, officials will likely change their rhetoric to help avoid actual conflict, Robert Ross, a political science professor at Boston College, previously told the Monitor.

“Tillerson’s remarks may be appropriate to secure confirmation from the Senate, but as policy they are not at all helpful,” he said. “As secretary of State, Tillerson would likely adopt a far more prudent approach to China’s maritime activities."

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