The coastal seas of East Asia, particularly from the East China Sea down to the South China Sea, have become an arena for growing tension and even the threat of military conflict, sparked by contention over maritime freedom, territorial disputes, and great power rivalry.
The East China Sea has developed into a major theater for these tensions, driven by the larger strategic rivalry between China and Japan. The two countries continue to clash over competing claims to uninhabited islets currently administered by Japan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. That dispute gained added steam recently when China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that overlapped those islands.
As both countries assert their presence, American policymakers worry about the maintenance of peace and security in the region, as well as ensuring freedom on the seas and of the air, including for U.S. military forces.
Two important seminar series at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center this winter quarter—one examining the future of China under the new leadership of Xi Jinping, and a second looking at the Sino-Japanese rivalry—explore these issues in depth and examine the dynamics of China-Japan-U.S. relations in the region, delving into the territorial and security tensions between China and Japan, the U.S. role and the implications of this for long-term stability.
Andrew Erickson, an associate in research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, offered a detailed account of China’s maritime and military development and how it fits into long-term Chinese strategy. Erickson, who recently deployed with the USS Nimitz in the Asia-Pacific, painted China’s development as rapid yet uneven.
Erickson argued that China is much more intensely focused on advancing its interests in the “Near Seas,” an area that groups the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea, than in the more distant “Far Seas.”
Erickson said, “Washington must redouble its efforts to communicate effectively with Beijing and cooperate in areas of mutual interest, particularly in the 'Far Seas,' he recommended, “while maintaining the capability, credibility, and determination to ensure the bottom-line requirement for Asia-Pacific peace and stability: that no one can use force, or even the threat of force, to change the status quo.”
In a separate lecture focused on Sino-Japanese rivalry in the East China Sea, Richard C. Bush III, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, said our concern should be focused on how Japan and China seek to assert their conflicting island and maritime claims. Even though the likelihood of war between the two countries is low, Bush argued that the climate still deserves careful attention because history shows territorial issues can be a casual factor for conflict.
Further to this point, Bush said the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and ADIZ disputes are “exposed lightning rods for domestic politics” that could encourage each nation’s leadership toward hasty and perhaps regrettable decisions. He asserted that risk reduction measures in the region should be improved including reestablishing communication channels and creating “rules of the road” for the ADIZ and island territories.
The Sino-Japanese Rivalry and China under Xi Jinping seminar series will continue through spring quarter. Please consult the events section for further detail.