Chinese Navy vessels have recently entered the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, just outside Japan's territorial waters. Moreover, a submarine traveled underwater in the contiguous zone. These moves have raised concerns that Beijing has begun actions to heighten tensions despite growing momentum for an improvement in bilateral relations.
This is the second time that Chinese warships have entered the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands since a Chinese military vessel sailed into the zone to track a Russian warship in June 2016. However, this is the first time that a Chinese submarine has been confirmed to have traveled underwater in the contiguous zone.
It is not against international law for foreign military vessels to travel in contiguous zones. However, Beijing also claims the Senkaku Islands. It is only natural that Tokyo is alarmed by such moves.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has announced that the Chinese Navy tracked and monitored a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel that had earlier entered the contiguous zone based on its claim that the Senkaku Islands are part of its territory, a view unacceptable to Japan.
Some Chinese media outlets criticized Japan by calling the latter's disclosure of the incident earlier than Beijing's provocative. These news organizations apparently do not sufficiently understand that there exists a wide gap between Japan and China in the degree of disclosure of military information.
In 2012, the Japanese government announced that it had purchased the Senkaku Islands from their landowner. China countered the move by unilaterally announcing that it had established an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea. As a result, bilateral relations were chilled.
Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held summit talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November last year, moves to improve bilateral ties have gained momentum. Last month, progress was made in bilateral talks on the establishment of a communication mechanism to prevent maritime clashes.
Japan, China and South Korea are exploring the possibility of holding three-party summit talks in Japan in 2018, which marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China. Tokyo and Beijing are negotiating a visit by Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono to China aimed at facilitating preparations for the three-way summit meeting.
One cannot help but wonder how the Chinese Navy's latest move, which came amid such circumstances, should be interpreted. It would be dangerous if Beijing had tried to gauge Japan's response. A dispute over territorial issues could provoke the people of both countries and give rise to an emotional conflict.
Still, the Japanese and Chinese governments have emphasized that they do not want to reverse the trends of improving bilateral ties. If so, both sides should calmly respond to the latest move and prevent a recurrence.
Prime Minister Abe has expressed his intention to cooperate with China over President Xi's "One Belt One Road Initiative."
Japan and China also need to communicate closely in responding to the North Korean issue. The two countries should place priority on bolstering moves toward improving bilateral relations.