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Bridging Troubled Waters: China, Japan, and Maritime Order in the East China Sea

Bridging Troubled Waters: China, Japan, and Maritime Order in the East China Sea

Martin Lavicka30 Jan 2015Leave a comment


Written by Martin Šturdík

James Manicom. Bridging Troubled Waters: China, Japan, and Maritime Order in the East China Sea. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. 2014. ISBN: 978-1-62616-035-4.

James Manicom analyzes the history and current situation of the disputes concerning the East China Sea, a salient aspect of the China–Japan relationship. His analysis and conclusions go counter the common impression created by the literature and the media, reflecting the public opinion or/and perhaps creating it, that the deep divisions between these two countries and their brinkmanship prevents any cooperation, and that conflict cannot be avoided. Manicom presents an optimistic but well-researched picture that despite the difficulties, negotiations and cooperation have been under way.

In the first chapter, Manicom outlines 4 areas in which Japan and China have made attempts to cooperate. These are disputed sovereignty (Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands), fisheries management, marine surveys and hydrocarbon resource development. The next chapters give detailed accounts of the successes and failures of cooperation in these areas. The importance of the maritime space between Japan and China has been steadily growing over the past several decades. The issue occupies such an important role in mutual relations mainly for two reasons. Firstly, both countries recognize the material value for the development of their economies and secondly, the issue’s importance for some constituencies or groups in both countries is a chance for politicians to tap the concerns and antipathy of nationalist voters and citizens. Manicom points out that when assessing the dispute between China and Japan in the East China Sea, it is crucial to focus on the long-term direction and history of the relationship rather than jumping into conclusions based on the current downturn in the relations. Manicom thus emphasizes that using this approach it will become obvious that the conclusions of the current literature, presenting confrontation as the only policy option for the two countries, are wrong.

This chapter also introduces the so called Maritime Value Matrix (MVM), which is “a way to conceptualize the salience of disputed maritime space to leaders at a given time.” This matrix incorporates two types of importance of maritime space: the importance for tangible reasons (e.g. resources, foodstuffs) and intangible reasons (e.g. identity formation), and it also considers “which aspects of disputed space are salient to both parties, and which aspects are only salient to one party.” Manicom further includes another variable: the value of a disputed space, namely its intrinsic and relational value. The intrinsic value of a territory is appreciated by both states and cannot be expressed in material units. The relational value describes the difference in importance of the territory to individual states. As a result, the MVM presents 4 situations: tangible-intrinsic reasons/value (economic: e.g. fisheries resources), tangible-relational reasons/value (strategic: exercising maritime jurisdiction), intangible-intrinsic reasons/value (shared-symbolic: no example) and intangible-relational reasons/ value (contested-symbolic: disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands). Manicom hypothesizes that the nature of cooperation and the outcomes will be different in all 4 situations. For example, the first scenario (tangible-intrinsic) will lead to formal and long-lasting agreements unlike the tangible-relational scenario, which will produce only informal agreements lasting for a short time. Manicom uses the MVM in the next chapters to discuss various aspect of the disputed maritime space.

In chapter 2 Manicom discusses the history of the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Essentially, there are three phases of this dispute. In the first phase, which lasted from 1969 to 1978, a status quo was established. Taiwan, followed by Japan, was the first country to claim ownership of the islands in 1970. In 1978, the Chinese leader Deng signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in Japan and both countries agreed to leave the issue of the islands’ sovereignty to future generations and focus on joint development (so called Deng’s maxim). The second phase, lasting roughly until the mid-1990s, was characterized by efforts to manage the dispute. The Japanese, for instance, scrapped the plans to erect a lighthouse on the islands; though, nationalists still managed to make themselves visible from time to time. In 1996 a consensus was reached that nationalists’ activities would be ignored from both sides. The third phase, from late 1990s until today, was marked by the rise of China as a maritime power. As a result, a new territorial status quo emerged with China exercising an indirect control over the maritime space in the East China Sea. The issues of maritime research, oil and gas extraction, and fisheries have become more prominent for nationalist constituencies who view the issue of maritime space control as important as the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. This period was also marked by a conflict over the release of a Chinese ship captain arrested by the Japanese coast guard. The relations were further strained by the purchase of the islands by the Japanese government essentially with the aim to prevent nationalist elements in Japan from doing the same. Despite the seemingly good intentions, the repercussions of the change of ownership led to the end of tacit cooperation and the application of Deng’s maxim.

Chapter 3 discusses in detail various aspects of the cooperation on fisheries using the MVM. Manicom provides an overview of the background and negotiations between Japan and China. The fisheries issue holds the same economic value to both countries: the maritime space is a source of protein and employment. In the 1970s and 1980s the fishing industry experienced a rapid expansion. The first fisheries agreement was concluded in 1975. At that time, the Japanese were also fishing in the Chinese coastal waters but the Chinese lacked the type of ships that could reach the Japanese coastal waters. In the 1990s, the Chinese fishing fleet significantly improved and this fact eventually brought both parties back to the negotiating table in 1997 to update the 1975 agreement. Manicom concludes that “the 1997 China–Japan fisheries agreement is an example of explicit, formal, reciprocal cooperation that is durable.”

Chapter 4 focuses on the cooperation on marine research. Since the second half of the 1990s Chinese research vessels increased their presence in the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) claimed by Japan. After protests by the Japanese, the Chinese side agreed to discuss the issue and finally a consensus was accepted by both sides. However, according to the Japanese, the Chinese intrusions continued. Manicom quotes Japanese experts who hold the view that “it is a Chinese strategy to legally and physically expand the control over the contested area.” Japan views the vessels as a threat to its national security. The reason is the fact that they operate in the disputed area but also, more importantly, the vessels are suspected to carry out multiple tasks (i.e. not only marine research but also to gather data for military purposes). Although Japan was able to force China to negotiate, the negotiations were brief and lacked mechanisms to make them a binding agreement. The agreement was only a note verbale and not a full-fledged treaty. In comparison with the fisheries agreement, the marine survey agreement was a clear failure. What these two issues have in common, according to Manicom, is that “Japan was slow to recognize the nature of the Chinese challenge.”

The next chapter discusses a highly prominent issue: resource development (especially between 2005 and 2008) in the East China Sea. The Chunxiao gas field was discovered in 2001. It lies 5 kilometers west of the median line advocated by Japan, so from the Chinese point of view, the mining activities should not even be contested by Japan. And indeed, since the opening of the East China Sea to foreign companies in 1994, the Japanese stance could be described as tacit acceptance.

This “strategic non-action” worked well when applied to the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue but was highly problematic when applied to the resource development issue. Around 2005, Tokyo came to view the Chinese activities in the East China Sea (including resource development) as “part of its maritime expansion.” Preceded by an overall downturn in Japan–China relations, both parties held 11 rounds of talks on the resource issue between 2004 and 2007. However, only little progress was achieved as China did not want to give in on this issue, which might have in turn strengthened the Japanese position on other issues. Finally, an agreement was reached in 2008 after Japan changed its tactic and took concrete steps to start drilling near the median line as well (which would possibly be uneconomical).
Even though the 2008 agreement does not ensure any lasting cooperation, it seems to be a turning point. Besides the establishment of a joint development zone straddling the median line, other positive outcomes were that China showed flexibility in its position and Japan showed a pro-active approach.

In chapter 6 Manicom reminds us of the shortcomings of the Japanese policy toward the East China Sea. “It took Japan three decades of territorial disputes and two decades of Chinese intrusions to finally add defense of its offshore areas/seas into its defense doctrine.” On the other side of the sea, the Chinese communist party presents itself as the force that protects the Chinese territory from Japanese neo-militarism. Therefore, Beijing’s strategy is to first escalate conflicts with Japan and then seek pragmatic solutions. Despite the distrust and high risk of escalation, China and Japan show they are capable of cooperating and managing tensions. In other words, we are witnessing “a process of building a maritime order.”

In the final concluding chapter, Manicom repeats that both countries are able to “adjust behavior in accord with preferences of the other party.” Cooperation over economic issues will be reciprocal, formal and enduring. Cooperation over strategic issues (maritime surveys) will be coercive, informal and short-lived. Cooperation over contested-symbolic issues will be reciprocal, informal and fragile. In general, cooperation will bring more results when it is preceded by lengthy negotiations at multiple government levels.

Manicom’s analysis is based on a whole range of issues standing in way between China and Japan. This book certainly serves as an excellent introduction to one area of the Japan–China bilateral relations.  Applying his MVM approach to actual issues provides a better understanding of the complexities of these relations. It remains to be seen how the potential for conflict further evolves in the future and whether the MVM can accurately predict behavior of both countries. China as an emerging superpower with a nationalist streak may act outside the MVM box.


Martin Šturdík teaches at the Department of Asian Studies, Faculty of Arts, Palacký University Olomouc, Czech Republic

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