At first glance the image looks like a fire boat in the Hudson River on July 4, water cannons spraying in a celebratory display. Except the display is martial, or at least as martial as a fire hose will allow. On Tuesday Japan Coast Guard vessels sprayed water at fishing boats from Taiwan, which were backed by eight ships from Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration, after they approached disputed islands in the East China Sea.
The image of the coast guards from two U.S. allies—Taiwan and Japan—engaging in a water fight over a handful of uninhabited rocks can hardly be reassuring to Washington. Thus far China and Japan have been the chief actors in the latest flare-up over the islands, which are known as the Diaoyu in Chinese and the Senkaku in Japanese. The foreign ministers of Japan and China discussed the dispute Tuesday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, but no breakthrough was seen.
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The addition of Taiwan, which also long claimed the islands, has contributed another layer of complexity to the thoroughly messy picture. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province that must eventually be reunited with the mainland and thus generally supports its claims to the Diaoyu. The conflagration between Japan and Taiwan over the islands complicates a dispute that is both worrisome for regional security and still far from a shooting war. Not unlike the Chinese protesters outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing earlier this month, who were forced by police to drop their rocks are hurl eggs and plastic water bottles instead, the coast guards around the Diaoyu Islands have thus far resorted to the mildest projectile in their arsenals.
Just as Beijing and Tokyo have domestic political considerations that make a retreat unpalatable, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has also had to look tough on territorial disputes. Although Taiwan was long occupied by Imperial Japan, relations between the two neighbors are generally far better than between Japan and China. That’s something Ma won’t want to risk by further escalating the dispute, says M. Taylor Fravel, a China expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I don’t think there is much potential, though the photos from [Tuesday] were dramatic,” he said via email. “Ma is playing mostly to a domestic audience and won’t want to damage relations with Japan.”
The skirmish Tuesday highlighted the potential for accident and miscalculation over the island chain that lies between Taiwan and Okinawa. Photos and video showed several vessels from Japan and Taiwan operating in dangerously close proximity. Last week ships from the Japan’s Coast Guard and China’s marine surveillance and fisheries administration also challenged each other without incident around the Diaoyu. The standoffs have so far been between so-called “white hulls,” coast guard, fisheries enforcement and similar agencies whose ships, typically painted white, are usually associated with stopping drug smugglers and rescuing mariners in danger. But in the Western Pacific they are often dispatched to show, or attempt to show, that a nation holds claim to a disputed island. Defense analysts say that such white-on-white standoffs can keep clashes from turning deadly, as the vessels involved are lightly armed, but they also pose risks, as their rules for engagement are often less clear than for blue-water navies.
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Amid this week’s official handover of China’s first aircraft carrier, a refurbished ex-Soviet vessel christened the Liaoning, Chinese military leaders have suggested the ship’s potential use in territorial disputes. “The aircraft carrier will play an important role in China’s settlement of islands disputes and defense of its maritime rights and interests,” the online edition of China’s Communist Party-run People’s Daily said Monday in a story citing Li Jie, a researcher with the China Navy Military Academy. The Liaoning’s greatest role though is probably as a talking point, an expression of China’s intent rather than it’s ability. It will be at least five years before it can conduct flight operations at sea, notes Fravel, and possibly even longer before a suitable task force of support vessels is developed. And the Diaoyu are close enough to be reached by attack aircraft stationed on Chinese air bases, making an aircraft carrier unnecessary. “I don’t think that the carrier will embolden China in this dispute,” Fravel says.
Indeed, for all the bluster directed at Japan in protests around China in recent weeks and on the waters around the islands, China has little room to escalate the conflict. The U.S. says it doesn’t take a position on the territorial dispute, but that as the islets are now administered by Japan they fall under the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty, which would trigger U.S. involvement in the event of an attack. Wang Shuo, manager editor of Caixin Media, says that reality makes armed conflict improbable. “China and Japan have at least two things in common in this hostile exchange: At home they fan up nationalism, and in the international arena no activities have exceeded the scope of previous, respective claims on sovereignty,” Wang wrote in a recent essay. “This means there is no possibility of a war in East Asia, not even remotely.” But for all sides an embarrassing retreat isn’t much more welcome, meaning the dueling patrol boats and water shows aren’t about to disappear either.