TOKYO -- China is now making two seemingly contradictory moves in the East China Sea near the Senkaku Islands: Its military is simultaneously making threatening and conciliatory gestures toward Japan.
What are China's real intentions? What is happening behind the scenes?
The Senkakus, a group of small uninhabited islets in Okinawa Prefecture, are approximately 330km from the coast of China. Known as Diaoyu Islands in China, they have been a source of tension with Japan in recent years.
There are almost always two to three Chinese naval ships on high seas between the Senkakus and China. They tend to stay around the halfway point between the coast of China and the Japanese islands.
China started stationing naval vessels in the area after the Japanese government nationalized the Senkakus in September 2012. These vessels have repeatedly moved toward the Senkakus before returning to their regular positions.
According to Japanese government sources, this pattern of behavior from the Chinese military has recently changed dramatically. Chinese naval ships had previously refrained from coming within 100-120km of the Senkakus. They began coming in as close as 70km around late November last year, the sources said.
The movements are still restricted to the high seas and not in violation of international laws. But the Japanese government warned China over the recent development behind the scenes. "We are very concerned about this and paying close attention to it," a Tokyo official was quoted by the sources as telling his Chinese counterpart.
Even before last November, China often sent ships to Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus. But those boats belonged to China Coast Guard, not the Chinese military.
While sending such patrol ships near the Senkakus, China "has always refrained from provocative actions involving its Navy," said a Japanese defense official.
China apparently fears that a rapid escalation in tensions arising from such actions would give the U.S. military an excuse to intervene.
So, why did China start sending vessels closer to the Senkakus recently? Is China now going to change its policy and stop trying to avoid military tensions in the area?
A detailed look at the Chinese military's movements in the area shows that the truth is not that simple. In fact, the Chinese military has also recently started behaving in a way that suggests it wants to ease tensions in the area.
Around the end of last year, Chinese naval ships started making radio contact, sometimes voluntarily, with vessels of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in the East China Sea. These communications informed the Japanese of their locations and courses.
This kind of radio contact to prevent an unintended clash is common among major maritime countries. Chinese naval ships stationed to the north of the Senkakus have previously shied away from responding to messages from Japan's Self-Defense Forces.
This year, China also resumed broader talks with Japan to discuss the establishment of a "maritime communication mechanism" to avoid an accidental clash. It also reopened a security dialogue with Japan.
"We have received an order from the top to establish the proposed communication mechanism with Japan as early as possible," a Chinese official was quoted as telling the Japanese side at these meetings.
What has made China willing to take measures to avoid military clashes with Japan in the East China Sea?
In the South China Sea, Beijing has taken hard-line stances on territorial issues with countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, reclaiming reefs and atolls there. This has deepened China's confrontation with the U.S. and raised tensions with the Southeast Asian countries involved.
To avoid a "two-front confrontation," Beijing intends to be careful not to ignite hostilities in the East China Sea while continuing to send patrol ships of its coast guard near the Senkakus, according to Japanese and U.S. government sources.
If that is the case, then, why has China started sending its military ships closer to the Senkakus? The Chinese vessels' behavior patterns provide clues.
Chinese naval vessels usually approach the Senkakus when patrol ships of the Chinese coast guard enter Japanese waters around the islands, informed sources say.
There is a possibility that the Chinese military and coast guard have conducted exercises so their movements can be coordinated in the event of any crisis around the Senkakus.
These moves may aim to counter efforts by Japan and the U.S. to strengthen their security alliance. With the Senkakus in mind, Japan and the U.S. intend to revise their defense cooperation guidelines soon.
The bottom line is that China probably wants to avoid a military clash but is poised to ratchet up the pressure on Japan over the Senkakus. If that is true, tensions in the East China Sea will persist. Events are neither a crisis nor a peacetime situation.