BY EDWARD J. BARSS | IN-DEPTH PIECE
The continued passage of Chinese warships into Japan’s contiguous zone off the coast of the Diaoyu/Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands provide a sharp reminder of the risks of escalation over disputes in the East China Sea. The incident highlights the failure of China and Japan to include the area around the Islands as part of their East China Sea crisis communication mechanism. The Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan, and Japan but are administered only by Japan. The inability of Japan and China to manage the dispute creates a situation where a military or political incident could easily escalate into crisis. Authoritative actors on all sides of the dispute share this view. Similarly, Japan’s Ministry of Defense views China’s actions as unilaterally escalating the situation in the East China Sea through force, creating serious concerns. While US commentators see the situation as perilous and view Chinese actions in the South China Sea as a precursor for the East China Sea. These views further suggest that a military or political incident involving the Pinnacle Islands is a matter of when, not if. The risk then for a crisis over the Islands is high in long term, as the dispute is being mismanaged due to an inability to legalize the dispute resolution process, the high number of naval/air patrols, poor bargaining tactics, and a widening of the dispute parameters. Further, there is a serious risk that negative public opinion in Japan and China and heavy handed tactics are moving the dispute from one that can be resolved through negotiation to a dispute that is perceived as winnable through force. This article intends to show that: 1) the risk of a new diplomatic or military incident over the Islands is high, 2) that the consequence of such an incident is likely further retrenchment and antagonism, and 3) that such antagonism is a precursor for actual conflict and greater escalation rather than returning to the current status quo.