It was a disturbing week for China-watchers. March 2nd saw the Chinese causing trouble with their neighbours: two Y-8 planes headed to the Senkaku islands causing the Japanese ASDF to scramble into action, illegal fishing inside Korean waters, and the harassment of Philippine vessels near the Spratly Islands. Add the other concerning news that there would be no limit to China’s nuclear arsenal and the 12.7% hike in defense spending, and you have cause for alarm.

China's disputed claims in the East and South China Seas

China's disputed claims in the East and South China Seas (Source: Pentagon)

The incidents around the Senkaku islands, where the two planes did not cross into Japanese-claimed airspace, and the Spratly Islands, in which a Philippine OV-10 bomber and Islander light reconnaissance aircraft were deployed to the Reed Bank after two Chinese patrol boats harassed a Philippine oil exploration vessel, demonstrate China’s desire to maintain pressure over its territorial claims.

The incident at the Reed Bank comes as the Philippine government prepares for a British contractor to conduct a three-dimensional seismic survey of the islands and is the first such incident in recent years. It will be interesting to see if this is a one-off or part of a broader policy of a more permanent presence in these two energy resource and fishery-rich areas.

A week earlier, China conducted counter-piracy drills near the Spratly Islands raising protests last week from Vietnam.

The Philippine president, Begnino Aquino III, wants to raise China’s growing belligerence in the region among its fellow ASEAN members, Indonesia and Singapore, in visits this week. China has refused to cooperate with the ASEAN nations over how to conduct exploration and control over the South China Sea and claims:

“China has indisputable sovereignty over Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters,” Chinese Embassy spokesman Ethan Sun said in the statement, using the Chinese name for the Spratlys.

“China has been consistently sticking to the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and committed to maintaining peace and stability.”

These disputes carry important strategic costs. Aside from the energy resources in the subsoil of the two regions, the areas are major shipping routes (as shown in the image below). By controlling as much of the so-called first island chain as legally possible, China will be able to secure its maritime logistics, an interest already demonstrated by the deployment of PLAN vessels to the Gulf of Aden. As Chinese confidence and capabilities grow, we should expect more of these incidents. For Japan, this is justification for its new National Defense Posture Review, and will spur on the strengthening of its forces in the Okinawan region.


Major International Shipping Routes
Major International Shipping Routes (Source: Simoleon Sense)
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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch