U.S.-Japan Coordination and the Challenges Posed by China’s Maritime Activities in the East China Sea

On February 19, 2020, NBR’s John M. Shalikashvili Chair in National Security Studies hosted a workshop in Washington, D.C, on U.S.-Japan coordination in the East China Sea. The invitation-only workshop was held under Chatham House Rule and drew participants from the diplomatic, academic, military, and corporate communities. Experts examined some of the most critical security dimensions in the East China Sea, with a view to assessing the requirements and implications of creating a U.S.-Japan Standing Joint Task Force to ensure the effective integration of U.S. and Japanese armed forces in all phases of conflict.

The first presentation provided an overview of the East China Sea security environment, including the nature of Chinese activity, such as maritime incursions in Japanese contiguous waters, and the lack of pre-crisis coordination between the United States and Japan. The ensuing discussion emphasized the need for improved coordination to deter China from launching a Senkaku Islands contingency operation in the East China Sea rather than defending or reclaiming the islands.

The next presentation addressed the importance of the East China Sea and Senkaku Islands for both China and Japan, such as the potential oil reserves and rich fishing grounds. The expert also commented on the weaknesses of U.S.-Japan alliance coordination in the East China Sea, arguing that while there is point-to-point coordination between the two countries, they are not seamlessly integrated.

The final presentation assessed how China would respond to the creation of a U.S.-Japan Standing Joint Task Force. The expert began by analyzing how China previously has reacted to alliance activities and U.S. freedom of navigation operations. Although China’s response in this case could be muted, the task force will likely not deter China from its actions in the East China Sea. The expert also noted the possibility that the task force could increase the number and intensity of Chinese incursions. Following the presentation, participants discussed what a standing joint task force would look like and whether it would be an effective solution to the current lack of coordination.

The workshop ultimately highlighted that the East China Sea is a potential flashpoint for conflict between Japan and China and current U.S.-Japan alliance mechanisms do not adequately respond to the challenges at hand. A roundtable titled “Navigating Contested Waters: U.S.-Japan Alliance Coordination in the East China Sea” was published in the July 2020 issue of NBR’s Asia Policy journal and built on the findings of the workshop.

Banner image: U.S. Navy Photo