Gunboat Diplomacy in the East China Sea

“Prudence demands that we deploy our ships to observe yours, our aircraft to observe yours. It would be prudent for you to consider that having your ships and ours, your aircraft and ours, in such proximity is inherently dangerous. Wars have begun that way, Mr. Ambassador.”
The Hunt for Red October

China is centralising its maritime enforcement assets under a single authority in an effort to produce a much more coherent ability to demonstrate sovereignty over disputed island chains. China is also sending surveyors to the disputed Senkaku Islands, while Japan’s policy is to prevent anyone from either nation from landing on the islands.

Both of these tactics represent a continuation of recent Chinese policy regarding disputed islands in the South and East China Seas, which has been to act as though it has undisputable sovereignty. The ability to enforce control over a territory has historically been a large part of international recognition of sovereignty. In the south, against weaker Southeast Asian nations, this tactic has largely worked. Japan is unlikely to roll over so easily. If China is serious about a new era of gunboat diplomacy, it could easily provoke a polarisation of the region that has so far not happened. And of course, more ships and aircraft in contact means greater chances of an unfortunate accident.


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