In my concluding thoughts on a report compiling four workshop papers about tensions in the East China Sea, published by the Lowy Institute on 7 January, I note that it is impossible to predict the consequences of the vicious tit-for-tat cycle which Beijing and Tokyo have fallen into over the past 16 months.

Re-reading the papers by Jin Canrong, Noburo Yamaguchi and Bonnie Glaser reminded me of the step-by-step escalation in tensions between Tokyo and Beijing since the papers were presented at the June 2013 workshop. After Tokyo in September 2012 upset Beijing by purchasing three of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from their private owner, China-Japan relations have become more fraught with each passing provocation:

  • China has continued to regularly dispatch patrols by law enforcement agency vessels and aircraft to assert its perceived sovereignty over what it calls the Diaoyu Islands. Japan, in turn, has persevered in countering the Chinese patrols with its Coast Guard vessels and by scrambling aircraft.
  • Japan has not budged in its insistence that there is no dispute over sovereignty of the islands, which in Japanese are called Senkaku; hence Tokyo sees no reason to discuss this issue with Beijing.
  • In November China announced a controversial Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), which includes the disputed islands and also overlaps with Japan's and South Korea's ADIZ.
  • In December Prime Minister Shinzo Abe upped the ante by visiting the Yasukuni shrine (pictured), described by James Fallows as symbolising 'Imperial Japan's aggressive war cruelty'. Because it honours the souls of 14 Class-A war criminals and features a museum that whitewashes Japan's past aggressions, a visit to Yasukuni by a government leader is seen across Asia as proof that Japan is not sincere in its repentance of Japan's atrocities against civilians during World War II.

It seems that with each step, fewer days elapse before there is news of yet another provocation. On 8 January Japan scrambled a military jet in response to a Chinese government plane seen flying towards the disputed islands, the first such incident since China declared its ADIZ. That same day Japan announced the nationalisation of 280 remote islands in its exclusive economic zone. Though the locations of these 280 islands are not yet known and it is not clear whether they are contested, the move nonetheless will stoke suspicions in China (and South Korea) about Japan's pursuit of a more assertive security strategy in its region.

One can surmise that China will continue to increase pressure on Japan to recognise that sovereignty over the islands is indeed contested. Tokyo will presumably continue to push back, maintaining its position of having sole sovereignty over the islands.

The positions of the Beijing and Tokyo governments have hardened, and there is no circuit breaker in sight.