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Foreign Policy

Searching for Meaning in the East China Sea

Oct 10 , 2012

Like most college professors who teach international relations, I am always on the lookout for important real world cases that will help my students understand the concepts and logic we use to explain state behavior.  Given that my main area of interest is in security studies and the grand questions of war and peace, the rise of China naturally takes center stage in my classroom as one of the critical security issues for the 21st century.  In fact, China pulls double duty in this setting.  As a dynamic “issue” in contemporary world politics, it demands of our students’ attention for its own sake.  But on a deeper analytical level, the rise of China serves as a natural laboratory for examining broader theories of war and peace that scholars have wrestled with for generations.

At its core, the rise of China represents the “power shift” problem, one of the most important dynamics in world history, and for students of international relations, a phenomenon that has spawned endless theorizing about the consequences of shifting power among major states.  Rising powers gain the potential to challenge the status quo within the existing international order. They pose a potential threat to states that once dominated that system and to others within reach.  If they are rising as dissatisfied “revisionist” powers, they will demand changes to the rules and relationships that define the status quo; and this threat to the status quo, scholars theorize, can create the kinds of fear and competition that result in war.

If the worst-case implications of the power shift problem were not so serious, professors of international relations could become positively joyous over the rise of China as a ready-made opportunity to link dramatic real-time events to the theories of war and peace we teach our students.  Every day, the news from East Asia seems to offer another teachable moment, a new twist in an ongoing phenomenon that begs explanation.  Ultimately, our responsibility to our students goes far beyond merely helping them track daily events or to point out indicators of a changing power structure.  Our objective is to extract meaning from these events.

Given that objective, what meaning can we extract from the flare up between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyo islands in the East China Sea?  How can we use it in the classroom?  What does it indicate about Chinese behavior in an era of shifting power?  From a power shift perspective, is this dispute a valid test case for answering questions about China’s challenge to the status quo? 

A plausible proposition to test is that the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is part of a broader Chinese push to establish uncontested dominance along the East Asian littoral.  According to this interpretation, China rejects a status quo in which it must recognize the ocean and island claims of states stretching from Japan in the north to Vietnam and the Philippines in the south.  The benefits of revising the territorial status quo would certainly include a new distribution of the material resources, primarily oil and natural gas, which could be tapped by those states that control the far flung islands and shoals of the East and South China Seas. 

More seriously, China might also strive to upend a status quo in which the United States is the dominant military power.  America has enjoyed an unprecedented degree of power projection capability that creates severe vulnerabilities for a China that lacks a sufficient “area denial” force to hold off the United States if necessary.  Control of particular geographic points in the “first island chain” of the western Pacific could – at least symbolically – help make physical dominance of the East Asian littoral appear real.  Perhaps the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is one more opportunity to test out a muscular, bluntly coercive, approach to forcing changes in the status quo.  The implications of the dispute, if examined within the power shift perspective, are serious for the United States, the champion of the political, economic, territorial and military status quo.  According to power shift arguments, the U.S. must decide how vigorously, and through what means, to include military force, it will actually defend that status quo against the rising challenger.

So is this island dispute a valid indicator of these deeper arguments about power shifts and the causes of war?  Does it mean that China is on a trajectory toward an increasing role for coercive means to revise the rules and relationships that define the current order, a trend likely to bring it into conflict with the U.S. eventually?  Like any good educator, I owe it to my students to raise alternative explanations and introduce other cases that could lead us to extract different meaning from the tensions in the East China Sea.

Perhaps Chinese agitation over this dispute is driven more by domestic level needs than a strong drive to upend the international status quo through coercion.  As the Chinese Communist Party approaches its ten-year leadership transition in mid-October, some argue that a public dispute with Japan is just the thing to rally support from key domestic power centers and the people, to better ensure political support for the party in this time of change. This is a very different interpretation that changes the implications of the dispute for the defenders of the international status quo, which subsequently might call for a different response from other states to keep the conflict in check. 

Complicating the effort to extract meaning from the East China Sea dispute is the fact that China is not the only Asian state now driving crises over islands.  Taiwan too has launched its own maritime confrontation with Japan over Senkaku/Diaoyu.  Why? Power shift logic certainly does not apply here: Taiwan has a great stake in the American-defended status quo, its rules, its security structure, its economics.  And yet, 12 Taiwanese coast guard ships recently escorted 50 Taiwanese fishing boats to the edge of Japan’s island claim, which then engaged in a brief water cannon fight with Japanese “defenders,” a move given supportive coverage in China’s official press.  Further north, Japan and South Korea are locked in a bitter dispute over which state can rightfully claim the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands; Japan’s angry rhetoric on the South Korean-controlled territory was accompanied by a coercive threat to withhold promised support for the South Korean currency.  Nationalism, historical memory, oil and natural gas; alternative (or supplementary) explanations that fall outside the simple power shift logic that captures so much attention from professors of international relations and policy analysts alike.

Applying theories of war and peace to real world events is much easier when looking back in time, to explain historical events that offer more data and perspective.  In the meantime, East Asia continues to churn out teachable moments that are too good to ignore.


Dr. Scott Silverstone is Professor of International Relations at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  The views expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the United States Army or the United States Military Academy.

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