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China’s Timed Provocation Challenges the US

On Monday, three Chinese coast guard cutters entered Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, in the East China Sea, just two days after Secretary of Defense James Mattis publicly reassured Tokyo that the United States would defend the islands. The Chinese craft, which did not have permission for the incursion, loitered for two hours.

If Mattis’s words are to mean something, the US and Japan need to respond to China’s aggressive behavior.

In December 1971, China made an official claim to the Japanese-administered islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyus. Taiwan also believes it has sovereignty over the barren and uninhabited outcroppings.

Taipei, a model international citizen when it comes to sovereignty disputes, has engaged in negotiations with Tokyo to settle differences. Indeed, Japan and Taiwan reached a landmark fishing agreement in 2015 regarding waters around the Senkakus.

Beijing, on the other hand, has resorted to force, regularly entering Japan’s territorial waters and airspace. Last year, there were, according to Tokyo, 36 Chinese incursions. Monday’s incident was the fourth this year.

The timing of the most recent incursion was significant. “Despite the frequency of the Chinese sailings,” CNN stated, “experts said having one so soon after Mattis’s visit to Japan sent a subtle message to both Tokyo and Washington.”

Message? Yes. Subtle? No. 

Beijing was dismissing Mattis and the United States, essentially saying that words meant little. And in a sense, the Chinese are correct.

Until now, Washington has downplayed the Senkaku dispute, just as it has hoped to avoid confronting belligerent Chinese conduct in the South China Sea. This approach, however, has failed. I would argue that Chinese belligerence around those East China Sea islands is the direct result of Washington’s failure to meaningfully respond to Beijing’s belligerence elsewhere.

Case in point: Leading up to Beijing’s seizure in early 2012 of the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a feature in the South China Sea that was generally agreed to belong to the Philippines, Washington persuaded Manila to withdraw its craft from the vicinity after it had extracted a promise from Beijing to do the same. The Philippines followed the US lead, China did not and thereby took the shoal. Washington, unfortunately, did nothing in response. Beijing has remained in control of the feature since then.

Having taken Scarborough without cost, China has simply moved to their next objective, the disputed Senkaku Islands. And how are things going? According to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, “Since the fall of 2012 Chinese government vessels have sailed near the Senkaku almost daily, and have entered Japan’s territorial waters around the islands a few times a month.” China, in short, stepped up the pressure on Japan soon after their aggression was rewarded at Scarborough Shoal.

China has no respect for American warnings and, therefore, the provocations will continue.

If the US and Japan are to stop these incursions around the Senkakus, the US Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force should station warships in the area. If the presence of American warships does not deter China, then Washington and Tokyo should unambiguously declare that they are prepared, if necessary, to use force to prevent foreign vessels from entering Japanese waters.

Mattis said that these islets are covered by Article 5 of the US-Japan mutual defense treaty. It is time to show China that Washington is as good as its word.

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