OPINION | East China Sea Conflict: Realist Roots of the Disputes
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OPINION | East China Sea Conflict: Realist Roots of the Disputes

By Andy Yee

Following the realist tradition, the bargaining perspective sees conflict as originating from disagreement over the allocation of scarce resources. This point of departure brings us to the fact that international politics is often concerned with scarce resources, of which territorial dispute is but one manifestation.

OPINION | East China Sea Conflict: Realist Roots of the Disputes

Realism, or power politics, has traditionally dominated thinking about territorial disputes. For realists, nation-states, existing as units within an international system of anarchy, live in a world of self-help. Material power and military strength are the decisive forces which shape relations among states (Waltz 1979; Mearsheimer 2001).

For pessimistic realists, a major focus for the international security of East Asia is the rapid industrialization of China, and the associated competition for energy resources in order to power its manufacturing industries (Kenny 2004). Since the start of economic reforms in 1978, Chinese GDP has consistently grown at an average rate of 7 to 8 per cent annually. China became a net importer of oil in 1994, and passed Japan as the second-largest importer of oil in the world in 2003. This year, it also passed Japan to become the second-largest economy in the world (The New York Times 2010b). It follows that, as a rising power, there is a great need for China to compete for external sources of raw materials. A fast-growing economy makes it easier for China to modernize its military, which in turn enables China to project power and secure external resources.

Image Attribute: East China Sea Maritime Claims / Source: Chinese Defence Ministry, EIA, Yonhap

Image Attribute: East China Sea Maritime Claims / Source: Chinese Defence Ministry, EIA, Yonhap

While the idea of Lebensraum or survival space has long been discredited, Graver (1992: 1018-1019) showed that such a notion has strongly influenced Chinese policy in the South China Sea since the late 1970s. While the area’s importance as a transit lane between the Indian and Pacific Oceans was continually emphasised in Chinese commentary during the 1980s and 1990s, this was overshadowed by discussions on the exploitation of natural resources in the region. Control over the South China Sea was seen as a way for China to seek living space for its population and achieve a position of great power through the exploitation of oil, gas, fisheries and other resources. Leifer (1995) pointed to the link between economic reform and security policy in the South China Sea – on the one hand, successes in economic reform enabled China to strengthen its armed forces, on the other hand, securing the South China Sea and its natural resources would in turn contribute to continuing economic development. Buszynski (2003: 346-347) also reiterated how the Chinese naval authorities used material reasons as a justification for naval expansion. Liu Huaqing, appointed Naval Commander in 1982, highlighted the South China Sea as one of China’s lost territories and used it to justify larger budgets and a strategic mission for the navy. In 1992, Vice Admiral Zhang Lianzhing predicted that the struggle for ocean resources would intensify in the future and that China would strengthen its navy to protect its territorial waters.

Likewise, realism also points to increasing conflicts in the East China Sea. The two neighboring states, China and Japan, are the world’s second- and third-biggest economies and oil consumers, respectively. Disputes between the two countries concern both the sovereignty of the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands and the maritime delimitation of each country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands have strategic value to both countries due to their particular location. Should either country secure control of the islands, it would acquire a prolonged and enlarged frontier, putting the other side at a disadvantaged position militarily. In fact, some Japanese military experts have highlighted the desirability of establishing a radar system, a missile base or a submarine base on the biggest Diaoyu/ Uotsuri Island. Further-more, control over the islands would enable either China or Japan to claim the surrounding 40,000 km2 as part of their EEZ area, and with it the rights to exploit the natural resources therein (Pan 2007: 71-72).

Another issue is the delimitation of the EEZs as measured from each country’s coast. This has implications over who could exploit the oil and gas deposits in the central area of the East China Sea, which could potentially go a long way to satisfying the energy needs of both countries. The dispute between the two countries stems from their well documented alternative interpretations of the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention (LOS) in accordance with two cardinal principles for maritime delimitation (Hsiung 2005).

The first principle, employed by China, is to follow the natural prolongation of the continental shelf. Article 76 (1) of the LOS essentially defines the continental shelf as the seabed extending up to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baseline from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured, or to the outer edge of the continental margin, with the outer limit not exceeding 350 nautical miles from the baseline.

China’s continental shelf claim extends up to the axis of the Okinawa Trough, which measures approximately 350 nautical miles from the Chinese coast (Hsiung 2005: 516). The second principle, used by Japan, references the respective EEZs of the coastal states. Article 57 of the LOS defines an EEZ as not extending beyond 200 nautical miles from the baseline. Furthermore, Article 74 (1) specifies that the delimitation of EEZs between states should be agreed on an equitable basis, taking into account all facts and norms within the context of general international law. The body of waters between China and Japan is fewer than 400 nautical miles in total. Without having mutual agreement, Japan unilaterally drew a “median line” by connecting the middle points between the two shores (Hsiung 2005: 517).

As for the East China Sea, progress is at a more primitive stage. Never in the course of history have China and Japan both emerged as major geopolitical players at the same time. This power balance is one characterised by uncertainty and mistrust. Recent events suggest that China and Japan have not yet succeeded in building trust, and it is apparent that they cannot even agree on whether there is a territorial dispute. Along with the political, economic and military tensions, China and Japan would do well to confront the underlying “strain of minds”.

The heightened existence of suspicion and the “clash of nationalisms” do represent genuine constraints within which governments may have to operate. This implies that any resolution would have to start with confidence-building measures and, ultimately, the thorough facing of history.

As of now, the US backing of Japan appeared ambiguous. The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands incident had highlighted the still-virulent, historically rooted animosity between China and Japan. The important lesson for the US, as the key mediating and moderating power in the region, is that the strategic backing of its allies in the region could have very different consequences: diplomatic and military escalation in the East China Sea, and negotiations in the South China Sea. In these ways, the simplistic attribution of the twin conflicts to being inevitable consequences of China’s rise would be to misjudge the nuanced state of international affairs, as well as its complex and different dynamics.

About The Author:

Andy Yee is a public policy professional with expertise in finance and technology. He is currently a Public Policy Director for Visa in Greater China, handling policy issues related to digital payments, economic growth and financial inclusion. Prior to Visa, he served for four years as a Public Policy Analyst for Google in Asia Pacific. This entailed internet policy issues including technology innovation, free expression, privacy and intellectual property. Earlier in his career, he has held permanent and visiting roles in public institutions and investment banks, including the Hong Kong Government, the European Union Delegation to China, UBS and Crédit Agricole.

Publication Details:

This article is an extract from a journal publication mentioned below, republished under the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License provided by the Original Publisher.

Yee, Andy (2011), Maritime Territorial Disputes in East Asia: A Comparative Analysis of the South China Sea and the East China Sea, in: Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 40, 2, 165-193. ISSN: 1868-4874 (online), ISSN: 1868-1026 (print).Download The Paper - LINK