A Japan Coast Guard vessel sprays water against Taiwanese fishing boats, while a Taiwanese coast guard ship also sprays water in the East China Sea near Senkaku Islands as known in Japanese or Diaoyu Islands in Chinese on September 25, 2012.
Credit: Yomiuri Shimbun

TOKYO, Japan — Anyone who believed the territorial row between Japan and China would be a short-lived exercise in controlled aggression must now concede that the region is in this for the long haul.

More than a month after Japan's government bought the Senkaku islands from their private Japanese owners, sparking violent demonstrations in China, both countries continue to wage a war of attrition while their trade partnership sinks slowly toward the bottom of the East China Sea.

While a violent clash on the high seas seems unthinkable, the dispute is being played out in proxy displays of firepower and combat readiness that leave little doubt about the gravity of any military confrontation.

As a reminder of Beijing's refusal to relinquish its claims to the islands it refers to as Diaoyu, Chinese surveillance vessels have made frequent appearances close to and just inside Japanese territorial waters near the territory. On Tuesday, four Chinese maritime surveillance ships were spotted in territorial waters, the eighth time they have been seen in the area since the middle of last month.

A more accurate reading of China's commitment to the Senkakus, though, was the involvement this month of 11 naval and civilian vessels, eight aircraft and more than 1,000 sailors in maneuvers simulating the thwarting of an "illegal entry" into Chinese waters.

Chinese media reports made no mention of the Senkakus, but there wasn't much ambiguity about the drill's target: Japan. The exercise, the Xinhua news agency reported, "was aimed at improving coordination between the navy and administrative patrol vessels, as well as sharpening their response to emergencies in order to safeguard China's territorial sovereignty and maritime interests."

Japan, meanwhile, has reportedly shelved plans to conduct a joint drill with the US on an island in southwestern Japan. The scenario: the retaking of an island occupied by "foreign forces."

But don't read too much into this apparent show of self-restraint. Japan, too, has been reciprocating Chinese displays of naval prowess.

On Monday, as Chinese vessels were in the so-called contiguous zone — a band of waters that stretches 12 nautical miles from the edge of a state's territorial waters — Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pledged to "strengthen security" around its coast. The announcement followed Japan's statement Friday that it will spend $213 million to beef up its coast guard.

Earlier this month, Noda observed a major fleet review of 40 warships, including destroyers, hovercraft, minesweepers and submarines, to mark the 60th anniversary of its navy.

"Needless to say, the security environment surrounding Japan is getting tougher than ever," Noda told about 8,000 servicemen and women.

The display underlined Japan's shift in military focus to maritime disputes off its southern coast, after decades of concentrating land forces in the north to repel an attack from the Soviet Union.

Japan has made no secret of its concerns over Beijing's military budget, which has risen 30-fold in the past 24 years; China's inventory, which now includes its first aircraft carrier, is expected to surpass that of Japan in the coming years.

And although Japan's defense budget has decreased 5.2 percent since 2001 to 4.68 trillion yen, or $56.4 billion, it is still the sixth highest in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Japan's 2012 defense white paper cited a "sense of caution" developing across the region over Chinese military expansion.

Citing regional territorial disputes, including those in the South China Sea over the Spratly islands, the white paper said: "China has responded to conflicting issues involving Japan and other neighboring countries in a way that has been criticized as assertive, raising worries about its future direction."

It continued: "The presence of US forces stationed in Japan functions as deterrent against regional contingencies, and it brings the sense of security to countries in the region."

The US military presence has taken on new significance in the wake of the recent flare-up over the Senkakus. Recognition of their deterrent role may have taken the sting out of the anger that followed last week's arrest of two US sailors accused of raping a woman in Okinawa, according to Jun Okumura, a counselor with the political risk and consulting firm Eurasia Group.

"One thing that has changed is the increased Chinese naval presence in the neighborhood of southern Okinawa prefecture," he says. "Even the governor of Okinawa has recently expressed an understanding of the need for the US military presence."

Washington has been at pains to present itself as a concerned, but objective observer on the tricky issue of the sovereignty over the Senkakus, while acknowledging its bilateral security commitments to Japan in the event of a conflict.

"The biggest role of the US Navy is its deterrence effect," says Yuichi Hosoya, a professor of international politics at Keio University in Tokyo. "If the US ever showed itself to be unwilling to get involved in a conflict in this area, China would naturally be encouraged to take a much tougher stance towards Japan."

Hosoya did not rule out a military confrontation, but predicted that cool heads would continue to prevail. "There is a possibility that the Japanese and Chinese navies will become involved in a localized conflict over this issue, but so far they have strived to be moderate and careful.

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"As long as this remains the case, I'm not overly anxious about the prospects of a military conflict. But both sides must stay wary of an unintended clash, which could ignite nationalists and lead to a greater conflict."

Tomohiko Taniguchi, a former Japanese foreign ministry official, agrees that a conflict is unlikely. Instead, he predicts a continuation of low-level, peaceful provocation lasting months, or possibly years, between Chinese security vessels and the Japanese coast guard.

But China's intentions are more worrying, he adds.

"China is demonstrating its naval power with drills and exercises, passing through the Miyako Strait into the Western pacific, with a view to effectively bringing those waters under Chinese control.

"I don't think there will be any firepower involved, but I predict a very nervous situation developing between the countries' law enforcement agencies.

"The US is very alarmed by China's aggressive posture. Remember that if Japan loses the Senkakus, the US 7th fleet would lose its freedom of navigation in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. The tipping point for the US is whether it retains that freedom of navigation, or comes to some sort of compromise and learns to live in the shadow of the new Sino-sphere." 

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