Water Wars: It’s Time to “Get Used to It” in the South China Sea


This week, the Chinese navy and air force carried out extensive operations—some of them unprecedented—in and around Japanese, Taiwanese, and American territorial waters. Beijing took a defiant tone when the appropriateness of these operations was questioned.

Last Thursday, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force flew six Xian H-6 bombers over the Miyako Strait, which lies between the Japanese islands of Miyako and Okinawa. That night, Japan’s defense ministry called the flyover “unusual,” but noted that Japanese airspace had not been violated. Ren Guoqiang, the Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesperson, said that the air force was conducting a regular drill that should not cause alarm or speculation. “This is a routine,” said Ren. “The activity of Chinese warplanes flying across the Miyako Strait is legal and appropriate.” Indeed, the Chinese military is planning conduct more far-sea exercises like it in the future and the relevant parties, Ren added, should simply “get used to it.”

Just a few days later, on Saturday, a pair of China Coast Guard ships passed into Japanese waters near Kyushu that they have never previously entered, according to the Japan Coast Guard. When the first Chinese ship entered Japan’s territorial waters just before noon, the Japan Coast Guard requested that it leave immediately. The Chinese ship complied, but then returned with another ship a few hours later. Both exited by mid-afternoon. On Monday, however, the Japan Coast Guard reported that several more Chinese ships had entered Japanese waters: two in the Sea of Japan off of Aomori Prefecture, and four around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. On Tuesday, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stated that the Chinese ships had complied with relevant United Nations maritime rules, and that nothing indicated that the ships “acted in any way that would mean they would not deserve the right of innocent passage.” Nevertheless, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Japan’s “government is increasing its vigilance against Chinese government vessels entering Japan’s territorial waters, believing that China may have been intentionally repeating such acts.”