This post summarizes one of nine case studies included in CSIS’s new report, Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence. The full case study is also available for download here. (Principal case study researcher: Jake Douglas)

In late 2011, the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, launched negotiations with the private Japanese owner of three of the disputed Senkaku Islands (administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan). A government ministry had been leasing three islets—Uotsuri, Kita, and Minami—from owner Kunioki Kurihara for years to prevent hardliners from developing them or otherwise inflaming the dispute. Yet, hobbled by large business debts, Kurihara had recently decided to sell.

They met in September and December 2011 and provisionally agreed to transfer Kurihara’s land rights to the municipality of Tokyo following an appraisal. The governor brought his eldest son, the secretary-general of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to some of these meetings. In April 2012, Governor Ishihara then aired his intent to buy the Senkakus. He also said he would seek funds from the metropolitan assembly by the end of the year to occupy and build new facilities on the islands.

Frustration with the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) approach to China drove Ishihara to this decision. If Tokyo did purchase the islets, then the governor expected to turn them over to the state when the LDP returned to power. He may have been hoping to make this a campaign issue in the upcoming Diet elections as well.

As the crisis began, the central government expressed firm opposition to Ishihara’s effort. Yet Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda felt that Japan had to do something to deter Beijing from thinking it could take the Senkakus by force or coercion. In fact, he had been considering nationalization ever since the 2010 trawler collision. On the other hand, Noda was wary of provoking backlash from Beijing. He hoped to quietly consolidate Japanese control “before anyone noticed.” But “caught off guard” by Ishihara, the prime minister’s staff scrambled to find new options.

In mid-May, China and Japan held tense but seemingly productive discussions over Tokyo’s plan and China’s own recent maritime assertiveness. Afterward, Chinese leaders felt confident that Japan would stop Ishihara and maintain the status quo. Japan’s impression was quite different. Noda and his aides thought China’s objections were mainly rooted in the governor’s strident rhetoric and that Beijing would be “less incensed” if the islands were nationalized.

The political pressure to act grew as Japanese citizens donated millions of dollars to Tokyo City for Ishihara’s project. DPJ officials felt he was making them look “weak-kneed.” So, on May 18 the prime minister decided that Japan should purchase the land directly. This played into the governor’s hands, but faced with a difficult choice, Noda embraced a course he already believed might ultimately be necessary on strategic grounds. Officials also wagered that the criticism Beijing faced in 2010 would dissuade it from an abrasive response this time around.

It was not until July 7 that Prime Minister Noda publicly confirmed he was actively weighing nationalization. This announcement took Beijing and Taipei by surprise, and both reacted angrily. On July 8, Japanese officials explained to a U.S. diplomatic team that they had received “the understanding of the Chinese” on the matter, which surprised the U.S. side. They asked about alternatives while voicing concerns about a possible major escalation of the dispute.

The situation soon worsened. For the first time in eight years, a group of Hong Kong activists landed on the Senkakus on August 15. The Japan Coast Guard (JCG) quickly brought them into custody. Facing the same dilemma as in 2010, this time (as in 2004) Japan deported these Chinese civilians immediately. Japanese nationalists staged their own voyage soon after, sparking the first large anti-Japanese protests in China in many years.

Prime Minister Noda then sent a personal letter to Chinese president Hu Jintao and briefly met him in person. Noda stressed the importance of not allowing the dispute to derail overall China-Japan ties. Noda considered the nationalization decision an “internal affair,” but its omission from the discussion led the Chinese leadership to believe that there was “still room for Japan to reexamine the purchase plan.”

On September 11, the Japanese government revealed it was bringing Kurihara’s three islands under state ownership. Tokyo explained that this effort would maintain the Senkakus’ “peaceful and stable management,” but Beijing was furious. The Chinese foreign ministry called the action “totally illegal and invalid” and warned of “serious consequences.” Maritime law enforcement (MLE) vessels were speedily dispatched to “assert the country’s sovereignty.” This marked the start of regular Chinese patrols that were unprecedented in scale and persistence. They were accompanied by increased air and naval activities over the horizon. Meanwhile, another wave of even larger protests rocked mainland China, and a boycott of Japanese goods also took hold.

Chinese MLE Patrols near the Senkakus

Half of the entire Japanese coast guard fleet deployed to cope with the challenge at sea. Recognizing the danger, Noda held back the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and ordered the Japan Coast Guard to “just keep monitoring” the Chinese ships as they sailed through the Senkakus’ territorial waters. Japan also sought assistance from the United States. On September 17-18, U.S. officials called on both sides to avoid further “provocations” while reaffirming that the United States’ treaty obligations to Japan applied to the islands (President Barack Obama said so himself two years later). Washington also strengthened its declaratory policy, vowing that Chinese incursions would not affect U.S. recognition of Japan’s de facto control of the islands.

A full year passed before China lowered the tempo of its patrols. The decline from September 2013 onward signaled that Beijing wanted to curb the mounting risk of conflict. In 2014, China and Japan managed to reach an agreement “acknowledging different positions” on the issue. However, Chinese intrusions near the Senkakus are nevertheless now routine.

The possibility of another dangerous incident remains quite real, so drawing the right lessons about the 2012 Senkaku Islands crisis is critical for the future of regional stability:

  • First, misperception colored the entire crisis. Beijing failed to recognize that its own increasing power and assertiveness had a hand in bringing about the crisis. Japan’s perception of a growing Chinese maritime threat led it in turn to take steps it mistakenly thought would improve its security.
  • Second, poor communication between Tokyo, Beijing, and Washington seriously deepened the crisis.
  • Third, U.S. alliance support and Japan’s firm but responsible approach at sea reinforced deterrence despite the increased tensions, helping to prevent an armed conflict.


For more articles in this series, please visit our Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia Report page.

About Michael Green

Michael Jonathan Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS and an associate professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He served on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) from 2001 through 2005, first as director for Asian affairs, and then as special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for Asia.

About Kathleen Hicks

Kathleen Hicks is senior vice president, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

About Zack Cooper

Zack Cooper is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Previously, he was senior fellow for Asian security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has also served on staff at the National Security Council and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He received a B.A. from Stanford University and an M.P.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Princeton University.

About John Schaus

John Schaus is a fellow in the CSIS International Security Program, where he focuses on defense industry and Asia security challenges. His research areas include Asia-Pacific security issues and U.S. defense policy and industry. Prior to rejoining CSIS in July 2014, he worked in the Office of Asian and Pacific Security Affairs within the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

About Jake Douglas

Jake Douglas was a research assistant with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.