The Chinese navy is stepping up its operations in areas around Japan amid stalled moves toward improving bilateral relations. China's actions, so to speak, are its version of "freedom of navigation" operations vis-a-vis Japan.
Japan's ruling and opposition parties, however, have made no concrete proposals over how to respond to China's recent moves and make a breakthrough in bilateral relations, giving us the impression that they lack a sense of crisis. Both the ruling and opposition camps need to have more in-depth discussion on the issue.
The Chinese military's moves are regarded as "revenge" against Japan for its support of the U.S. military's "freedom of navigation" operations in the South China Sea and for leading discussions over the South China Sea issue during the Group of Seven Ise-Shima Summit in May.
A Chinese navy vessel for the first time sailed into contiguous waters just outside the Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture while tailing Russian navy ships. A Chinese information-gathering vessel also passed through Japanese territorial waters off Kuchinoerabu Island in Kagoshima Prefecture.
It is only natural for Tokyo to have lodged a protest against Beijing over such provocative, unilateral actions by Chinese vessels. However, navigation in contiguous waters itself does not run counter to international law. With regard to the Chinese ship's entry into Japanese territorial waters, Beijing asserts its legitimacy on the grounds that the vessel passed through Tokara Strait, which it claims to be "an international strait."
While Japan doesn't need to succumb to such an argument, it should read China's signals accurately. The fact that China brought up the notion of "international straits" for the first time apparently indicates that those Chinese vessels' actions were premeditated to defy Japan's interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The right of passage in international straits is granted even within a country's territorial waters. That right is more powerful than the right of innocent passage for passing through territorial waters, in that the former right is interpreted to allow even submarines and airplanes to pass through international straits.
Japan has set Soya, Tsugaru and three other straits as specified waters and curtailed the inherent 12 nautical mile territorial waters to just 3 nautical miles, thereby leaving out more of the high seas where freedom of navigation is guaranteed. Through such measures, Japan has avoided recognition of international straits and application of the right of passage. However, some international law scholars in the United States and Europe have taken the position that those five straits, as well as Tokara Strait and some other straits, are international waters, a position apparently echoed by the United States.
Japan asserts that Tokara Strait is not being used for international passage and is therefore not an international strait. Japan has good reason to insist on this legitimacy as the interpretation of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea hasn't been established. However, it remains unclear how Japan is going to respond if China ever has its aircraft and submarines pass through the strait. It is also uncertain how the United States would react to such a situation.
In order to avoid any accidental clashes, it is imperative to secure a communication mechanism where Japan can confirm China's true intentions. While the United States and China has a crisis management mechanism in place, negotiations over a maritime and air liaison mechanism between Japan and China haven't progressed.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to visit China in September, to be followed by a summit meeting between Japan, China and South Korea by the end of the year in Japan. Tokyo should squarely face up to the risks that lie between Japan and China and advance bilateral dialogue as a means of crisis management. (By Kenji Bando, Editorial Writer)