China-Japan: the ongoing dispute in the East China Sea

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The ongoing territorial dispute between China and Japan in the East China Sea is one of the most significant geopolitical issues in the Asia-Pacific. The recent military activities by China in the region have further escalated tensions between the two countries. The risk of unintended border incidents is real.

The geopolitical issue

The ongoing territorial dispute between China and Japan in the East China Sea is one of the most significant geopolitical issues in the Asia-Pacific region. Both countries claim sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are located in the East China Sea. Japan asserts that it has historical evidence of sovereignty over the islands, which it has administered since 1972, while China argues that it has been an integral part of its territory since ancient times (15th century).

The recent military activities by China in the region have further escalated tensions between the two countries. On March 2, two Chinese navy ships, a Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyer and a Zhangkai II-class frigate, were detected sailing between Okinawa and Miyakojima islands toward the Pacific Ocean. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces responded by carrying out warning surveillance and information-gathering activities. In addition, Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) fighters were scrambled on numerous occasions in February following the threat of intrusion into Japan’s airspace over the East China Sea.

China’s increased military presence reflects its growing assertiveness in its foreign policy, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. The country’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its expansionist policies in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean have raised concerns among regional powers, including Japan and the United States. China’s efforts to project its military power further into the Pacific Ocean, as demonstrated by the recent naval activity, are also seen as a challenge to the U.S.’s strategic dominance in the region.

Japan, on the other hand, has been strengthening its military capabilities in recent years, partly in response to China’s assertiveness. In January 2021, Japan unveiled its defense white paper, which stated that China’s military modernization was a significant security threat. The white paper also highlighted Japan’s efforts to increase its defense budget and improve its military capabilities, including the introduction of new fighter jets and the acquisition of missile defense systems.

Security threats and trends

The recent military activities by China in the East China Sea pose a significant security threat to Japan and the broader region. China’s increased military presence, including the deployment of advanced weapons systems, increases the risk of accidental clashes and military escalation. Japan’s response, including the scrambling of fighter jets, indicates the seriousness of the threat and the importance of maintaining a robust defense posture.

In addition, China’s actions in the region may have implications for Japan’s alliance with the United States. Japan and the U.S. have a security treaty that obligates the U.S. to defend Japan in the event of an attack. However, China’s increasing military assertiveness in the region could test the strength of this alliance, particularly if the U.S. is perceived as unwilling or unable to intervene in a conflict with China.

The ongoing territorial dispute between China and Japan over the East China Sea is likely to continue in the foreseeable future. China’s growing military assertiveness and Japan’s efforts to strengthen its defense capabilities suggest that tensions will persist. Moreover, as China’s Belt and Road Initiative expands, its naval activities are likely to increase, leading to further tensions with Japan and other regional powers.

The Biden administration’s approach to the Asia-Pacific region is also likely to shape the future of the territorial dispute. The U.S. has stated its commitment to its allies in the region, including Japan, and its willingness to support their defense against China. However, the Biden administration’s focus on domestic issues and competition with China in other areas, such as technology and trade, could limit its ability to respond to Chinese aggression in the East China Sea.


The ongoing territorial disputes between China and Japan in the East China Sea have once again intensified in February, with multiple incidents of Chinese navy ships and aircraft intruding into Japan’s territorial waters and airspace. Japan has responded with increasing frequency and vigilance, scrambling its Air Self-Defense Force fighters to intercept and deter Chinese incursions.

This recent escalation is a cause for concern, as it highlights the continuing geopolitical tensions between China and Japan, two of the most powerful countries in the region. The disputed territories in the East China Sea, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, are rich in natural resources and strategic importance, which makes their ownership a critical issue for both countries.

The security assessment of this situation indicates that there is a risk of unintended escalation and conflict, as both sides are likely to continue to assert their sovereignty over the disputed territories, leading to a possible miscalculation or miscommunication that could spark a larger confrontation. The joint military exercise between Japan and the US and the continued presence of US military forces in the region further complicates the situation, as it signals a strong US commitment to support Japan’s territorial claims and could be perceived as a provocative act by China.

The trends suggest that the situation is likely to continue to be tense and volatile, with both China and Japan increasing their military presence in the region and engaging in frequent shows of force. The Chinese government’s assertiveness and territorial claims in the region are also likely to continue, driven by its growing economic and military power, as well as its desire to establish itself as a dominant player in the region.

In conclusion, the East China Sea dispute remains a complex and volatile issue that requires diplomatic efforts and negotiations to find a peaceful resolution. Both China and Japan need to exercise restraint, engage in constructive dialogue, and avoid actions that could lead to unintended consequences. 

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