China's naval exercises in East China Sea send warning to regional rivals

Chinese naval exercises today simulated a conflict in disputed waters. Tensions between China and Japan have been mounting over claims to a set of islands in the East China Sea.

China Daily/Reuters
Vessels roam the waters of East China Sea during a naval drill Friday. The Chinese navy conducted a joint exercise with the country's fishery administration and marine surveillance agency in the East China Sea.

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

China held naval exercises in the East China Sea today in a robust show of military force intended to warn regional rivals against escalating territorial disputes.

China regularly holds maritime drills in the fall, but "sources close to the military" said the drills were related to a territorial dispute that has been the source of recent flare-up between China and Japan, the Financial Times reports.

Japan and China have long been at odds over a string of islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, but tensions ratcheted up last month when the Japanese government agreed to buy three of the islands that were privately owned by a Japanese businessman. The incident brought relations between the countries to a 40-year low and prompted the cancellation of celebrations planned for last month to fete the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in an in-depth report on the dispute last month.

"Relations are worse than they have ever been in 40 years," Liu Jiangyong, a professor of Japanese politics at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told the Monitor. "I don't see much chance of a war; but I think Japan is preparing for one, and we should, too."

The Japanese government said that the intent was not to challenge China, but to prevent the islands' sale to the governor of Tokyo, a vocal nationalist who might have used them to antagonize China. The explanation did not quiet Chinese anger.

The exercises also come on the heels of visits earlier this week by Japanese opposition leader Shinzo Abe as well as two cabinet ministers to the controversial Yasukuni shrine. The shrine, which honors Japan's war dead – among them 14 class A war criminals convicted after World War II – is seen in China as a "symbol of Japan's military atrocities" during its decades-long occupation of much of the region until Japan's defeat in 1945, Bloomberg reports.

Chinese news agency Xinhua said the officials' visit "would further poison bilateral ties" and "added insult to injury," according to Bloomberg.

Drills like those held today are a routine event, but military sources told the Financial Times "this drill could only be read as directed at the island crisis." 

“This exercise will simulate a situation where foreign law enforcement vessels obstruct and interfere with our maritime surveillance and fisheries administration vessels on a mission to safeguard maritime rights and enforce the law,” said state media, referring to a statement from the East Sea Fleet which is participating in the drill.

According to the statement, the simulated scenario includes a collision in which the Chinese ships are damaged and some patrol staff are hurt and fall into the water. The East Sea Fleet then “sends a frigate, a hospital ship, a tugboat, advanced fighters and helicopters for support, cover and emergency rescue.”

“With this content, this drill must be seen in the context of the Diaoyu Islands,” said a source familiar with the military’s intentions.

According to Xinhua, the Navy held the exercises with the fishery administration and marine surveillance agency in order to "improve coordination" and their ability to respond to emergencies. Eleven vessels and eight aircraft were involved in the effort.

The Associated Press reports that Japan plans to hold similar drills with the US later this year centered around a theoretical challenge of "taking a remote island back from a foreign intruder."

Multiple experts interviewed by the Monitor said that they don't think either country wants to go to war. The real cause for concern is that it would take little to tip the countries into open conflict with tensions at a slow boil for so long, and both taking steps to intimidate the other.

So far, hostilities have been limited to water-cannon duels, as happened Sept. 24 between Japanese and Taiwanese Coast Guard vessels. But "when you have that many boats sailing around, the potential for mishap is quite high," points out Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The danger, adds Valérie Niquet, a China analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think tank in Paris, is that a collision, a sinking, or a fatality "could start something that would be difficult to stop," especially since China and Japan have no procedures in place to handle maritime crises.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.