China’s Military Drills Over Okinawa

Virginia Koeppl
Vol. 37 Associate Editor
Vol. 38 Article Editor

On December 26, 2015, China sent three armed vessels, one of them designed to carry four cannons, into Japan’s territorial waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands in the southern part of the East China Sea.[1] This is the first time that the People’s Republic of China has sent armed vessels into waters claimed by Japan.[2]

The sending of these three vessels signals a new phase of incursions intended to expand China’s control over the Senkaku Islands, and possibly the Ryukyu Islands.  The Senkaku group consists of eight uninhabited islands, with a total land area of less than seven square kilometers which lie roughly 120 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan, 200 nautical miles east of mainland China, and 240 nautical miles southwest of Japanese Okinawa.[3] Despite their size, these islands are of immense economic and strategic importance.[4]

Under the international law of the sea, control of the Senkakus may convey exclusive economic rights to nearly 20,000 square nautical miles of undersea resources.[5] Art. 76(4)(a) of the Convention on the Law of the Sea declares that “[f]or the purposes of this Convention, the coastal State shall establish the outer edge of the continental margin wherever the margin extends beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measure.”[6] Therefore, control of the Senkaku islands is tied to control over the resources hidden there.

Those islands happen to include Okinawa, where the U.S. has an important military base.[7] Over the last decade, Beijing has advanced on the area step-by-step.[8] This is only one short step on China’s way to Okinawa. In the spring of 2013 Chinese authorities embarked on an aggressive media campaign to challenge Japan’s sovereignty of the islands.[9]

The conflict is heating up rapidly. Japan’s response to the most recent challenge was to start fortifying the 200 islands lying within the 870 miles between Kyushu, the most southern of Japan’s main islands, and the island of Taiwan.[10] On U.S. urging, Tokyo has sent a line of anti-ship, anti-aircraft missile batteries in the area surrounding its islands.[11] This is part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s broader goal to strengthen the military, which has evolved to include a strategy to dominate the sea and air surrounding the remote islands.[12] This is the first time that officials have spelled out clearly that “the deployment will help keep China at bay in the Western Pacific and amounts to a Japanese version of the ‘anti-access/area denial’ doctrine.”[13]

The erupting hostilities might not just be between Japan and China, but might also involve the U.S. With about 50,000 soldiers and sailors permanently stationed in Japan, it is most likely that the U.S would be drawn into any conflict over the Senkaku islands.[14] And under the terms of a Mutual Security Treaty, the U.S. is pledged to defend Japan against any threats to all “territories under the administration of Japan.”[15]

The basis for the dispute over the sovereignty of the Senkakus and the surrounding seas is that Japan and China have rival interpretations of the treaties ending the Sino-Japanese and Second World Wars, as well as of the customary international law of territorial acquisition.[16] The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf is limited by the non-prejudice clause in Article 76 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea.[17] Currently, there is nothing in the rules of international law that would prevent Chinese Warships from sailing in between Japan’s islands. In reality, however, they might have to accept having missiles trained on them if they are determined to cross through the islands.[18]

The vagueness of customary international law has often been criticized for encouraging parties to invoke international legal norms which can almost always be construed to fit their interests, while dissuading the parties from trying to resolve their disputes through more peaceful legal processes.[19] The conflict between Japan and China concerning the Senkakus islands is a prime example of this. Soft customary international law is insufficient to resolve situations such as these since it depends entirely on voluntary cooperation between the countries[20], although in many other contexts it is invaluable as a normative force. However, this area seems to require the expansion of hard law in the form of binding norms.

[1] Gordon G. Chang, Now China Wants Okinawa, Site of U.S. Bases in Japan, The Daily Beast,

[2] Id.

[3] Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky, International Law’s Unhelpful Role In The Senkaku Islands, 29 U. Pa. J. Int’l L. 903 (2008),’lL.903(2008).pdf

The conflict between Japan and China concerning the Senkakus islands is a prime example of this.processes.nternational legal no

[4] Id.

[5] Id., at 903-904 (citing Victor Precott & Clive Schofield, , The Maritime Political Boundaries of the World 438 (2d ed. 2005)).

The conflict between Japan and China concerning the Senkakus islands is a prime example of this.processes.nternational legal no

[6] United Nationas Convention on the Law of the Sea,

The conflict between Japan and China concerning the Senkakus islands is a prime example of this.processes.nternational legal no

[7] Chang, supra note 1.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo, Japan’s far-flung island defense plan seeks to turn tables on China, REUTERS,

[13] Id.

[14] Ramos-Mrosovsky, supra note 3, at 905.

[15] Id.; Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between Japan and the United States of America, Japan-U.S., art. V, Jan. 19, 1960,

[16] Ramos-Mrosovsky, supra note 3, at 904.

[17] Art. 76 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea; see also Jianjun GAO, The Okinawa Trough Issue in the Continental Shelf Delimitation Disputes within the East China Sea, Chinese J. Int’l L.,

[18] Kelly and Kubo, supra note 12.

[19] Ramos-Mrosovsky, supra note 3, at 906.

[20] See generally Laurence R. Helfer & Ingrid Wuerth, Customary International Law in the Age of Soft Law (Working Paper, 2014)