Chinese ambitions in the East China Sea

Chinese ambitions in the East China Sea

A few weeks ago, the Twitter account of the Chinese state-run newspaper ‘People’s Daily’ published a video showing Chinese students creating the shape of China in a choreography. The inclusion of the so-called nine-dash line and a few islands to the northeast of Taiwan raises questions about Beijing’s maritime ambitions again. 

Currently, China claims vast territories of South East Asia, spanning virtually the entire South China Sea. Beijing symbolises these claims with a nine-dash line. Despite the ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, rendering the Chinese claims null and void, China continues to advertise the claimed areas as their rightful land.  The video of Chinese students creating the shape of the national territory, including regions claimed within the nine-dash-line, reiterates this intention.  

The video elicited strong reactions about the scope of the nine-dash line and the unspecified islands northeast of Taiwan that are included. These patches of lands could be the Japanese Okinawa Islands. However, they could also symbolise the highly contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Troubles in the recent past

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have been at the centre of a simmering dispute between Beijing and Tokyo for the past seven years. The contested islands are under Japanese administration since 1972. However, they are claimed by China and Taiwan as their rightful territory, too. When the Japanese government purchased some of the islands from a private Japanese owner in 2012, China interpreted the actions as a unilateral challenge to the status quo that threatened strategic stability in the region. 

This was followed by escalated Chinese coastal guard patrols, heightened naval traffic from both sides and substantially increased weaponry in the East China Sea. Communication channels were frozen, and Beijing even established an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over much of the East China Sea, including some of the air space over the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. 

China exercised its right in establishing an AIDZ for the airspace over its territorial waters. However, since there is no international law regulating AIDZ’s, Beijing controversially interpreted the standard international practise and established the AIDZ over the airspace of the entirety of the Chinese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), ultimately including the disputed islands. In doing so, China willingly accepted a significant negative impact on the relations between Beijing and Tokyo.  

As a vital turning point in the dispute, both parties resumed crisis management talks and re-opened crucial communication channels; after discussions at the APEC summit in Beijing that year. Despite cautiously improving relations since the summit, the dispute remains rattled by the increased military, naval and air traffic to this day. 

Why claim uninhabited islands? 

Many reasons have been brought forward for the continued dispute between Beijing and Tokyo concerning the uninhabited islets in between the Japanese Okinawa Prefecture and the coast of Taiwan. Initially, it was suggested that the Chinese military operations were part of a strategy that bolstered their claim. Thus, de facto established control over the maritime area in the region. 

Accordingly, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands were seen as the vital feature in allowing easy access to essential fisheries, strategic shipping lanes and natural resources in the sea bed. This would strongly resemble the Chinese strategy in the adjacent South China Sea – ‘creeping expansionism’. It means repeated incremental measures that are not confrontational on their own. 

However, experts contend that the argument of the strategically valuable position of the islands is becoming less relevant. Instead, the reason the dispute is still active in the attached emotion and its function as a proxy for an emotionally charged struggle entailing the histories, reputations and statuses of both countries. Due to this, neither side can afford to give up their respective claims.   

A catastrophe waiting to happen?

This presents the risk in the simmering conflict in the East China Sea. Despite a slow rapprochement, the hardened stances, the conflict is perceived as an indicator for Beijing’s and Tokyo’s behaviour towards other Asian powers and the low-level risk-mitigation-measures make it difficult to properly deal with accidental or unprofessional encounters that could result from the increased military operations and coastal guard presence from both sides. 

Neither state can afford to give up their position. It would be hard to tolerate for Tokyo if Beijing would try to use the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands for military purposes. Similarly, Beijing likely would not accept any further altering of the current status quo without any military repercussion. 

Yet, we should not be too worried about a possible conflict erupting between China and Japan, because of the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The chances of a war between the neighbours are highly unlikely. 

Besides certain similarities to the South China Sea strategy, Beijing faces a much more powerful opponent in Japan than those it opposes in the waters to the south. Both countries are highly intertwined and share a large trade volume; that would suffer much should both parties engage militarily. Furthermore, the prospect of the United States being drawn into the conflict would be too dangerous for China, especially with a large number of U.S. troops positioned on nearby Okinawa. 

In conclusion

The concrete case of Beijing publicly displaying the islands as a part of the Chinese territory is unlikely to have a direct consequence, as it does not represent a military threat to Japan and will not alter the current status quo. Furthermore, China has been known to use such means of state propaganda before. 

In conclusion, the chances of a fully-fledged conflict between both nations are remote. This was reiterated by Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe at a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore while condemning the prospect of a war between China and Japan, and the eventual involvement of the United States.

Categories: China, Security

About Author

Alexander Viehmeier

Alexander is a recent International Relations Master graduate from the University of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, and holds a Bachelor degree in Political Science from the Georg-August-University in Göttingen, in Germany. In his research, he focuses on Chinese foreign policy, the relations between China and the United States, the South China Sea as well as the Indian Ocean Region.