Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Another Maritime Incident, This Time with Chinese Research Vessel

The Yomiuri appears to be the first newspaper to carry the story about a Chinese research vessel chasing a Japanese Coast Guard vessel and forcing it to stop surveying the continental shelf on the Japanese side of the median line. The incident occurred on 3 May according to the Coast Guard announcement on the following day. It follows on the heels of two incidents, both involving the PLA Navy, one a fleet including two submarines in plain sight passing through the Okinawa islands—true, in international waters—and the other a helicopter/helicopters buzzing—twice!—a Japanese ship that went to observe those ships. I’ve given some thought to these maritime developments as well as the East China Sea gas fields. The following is the essence of my response to some questions. (They are not from a client, which is why I feel justified in laying them out here. I did leave out one point, because it concerns a novel idea—not quite useful in this particular instance in my view, but possibly applicable in a more general sense and certainly plausible—that did not originate from my side of the exchange.)
1. They are all deliberate acts, and the most recent one involves yet another government agency. It looks like a pattern is emerging.
2. The Chinese authorities, like the Russians, are willing to take risks when they perceive weakness. They keep pushing until there's push-back, serious consequences. And the Hatoyama administration did act meekly in responding to the first PLA Navy incident, and the second one quieted down after a mysterious intelligence leak about an exchange between the mother vessel and the helicopter that indicated that the pilot had been freelancing.
3. The tipping point will come if and when someone on the Japanese side is killed.
4. It’s surprising that this happened parallel to the unofficial bilateral talks on the South China Sea gas fields. Perhaps they'll finally move forward on the Japanese buy-in agreement under the Fukuda administration. After all, a Japanese company/consortium taking a minority share in a Chinese development company on the Chinese side of the median line makes no concession on Japanese claims. But will anyone other than Asahi and Mainichi buy a Chinese attempt to camouflage its efforts to establish a new status quo?
Incidentally, you don’t want to mess with a Chinese research vessel if my experience 31 years ago is any indication. I was doing UNCLOS and ocean development at time and went to see a Japanese research vessel. There was a Chinese research vessel berth at the same port, there apparently as part of a bilateral exchange program. I went to take a look at it—I think I could actually go on board, but my memory may be playing tricks on me—and saw a piece of equipment rising from the deck and covered with a sheet that looked suspiciously like a large, mounted machine gun.


Janne Morén said...

Could you reformulate the incident description in the beginning? Who was measuring what, and who got stopped?

About those submarines, though: as somebody (MTC? some newspaper article? I forgot now) pointed out, it was in international waters, but ion the Japanese economic zone, and that _requires_ submarines to pass above water, flying the country flag. It's not a provocation, but simply following the international rules for such a passage.

Jun Okumura said...

The news report only says that they were research vessels. A Chinese research vessel obstructed a Japanese Coast Guard vessel from conducting surveys over a patch of water over which neither country could claim that it exercised de facto control. The Coast Guard should be posting the announcement on its website pretty soon. If I find that it contains information of interest—probably not—I’ll come back to it.

The media at the time made it clear that the fleet passed through international waters. It was the open display of the submarines that was seen as a provocation. If any report states that a submarine cannot pass through an EEZ submerged, the writer is confusing EEZs and international straits. A submarine must show itself when it is exercising its right of passage through an international strait under sea law. If it was a blog post, go back and take a look. I’m sure that it has been corrected by now.

Worried Netizen said...

If the Japanese government doesn't take a stand against the PRC, it'll keep on losing face throughout East Asia and the international community. Not to mention any semblance of being taken seriously as a nation-state.

Jun Okumura said...

Worried Netizen:

There’s more than face at stake here. I’ve been downplaying the Chinese threat for years and I will continue to do so, but I’ve also been mindful of the Chinese propensity to push their advantage whenever they can. We will look back on the latest incident as the first step toward a new status quo unless the Japanese government acts at the risk of China—the authorities, the public—taking offense. A simple protest is not nearly enough.