China’s maritime disputes with other states over territorial sovereignty and resource claims in the East and South China Seas constitute one of three related but distinct categories of maritime disputes that exist between Beijing and other nations.
Aside from the Taiwan issue, maritime sovereignty and resource disputes center on (a) the Sino-Japanese imbroglio concerning both overlapping claims and sovereign control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands northeast of Taiwan, and (b) the complex web of disputes between Beijing and several Southeast Asian entities over many islands in the South China Sea. A second set of disputes centers on the activities of naval military operations within China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and “near seas” (jinhai).
On the broadest level, a third set of concerns (they have not yet risen to the level of an active dispute, constituting instead an intensifying competition) is more strategic in nature, affecting the entire area of the so-called “first island chain.” They derive from the contradiction between a long-standing American assumption of the need to maintain military supremacy across the Western Pacific and the recently emerging Chinese capability to challenge certain elements of that supremacy through the deployment of increasingly capable “counter-intervention” or anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD)-type weapons systems along China’s maritime periphery.
The increasing capabilities and resolve that Beijing is displaying in its disputes with the U.S. and other nations are viewed as an indirect challenge to the overall maritime status quo as defined largely by Washington. Taken as a whole, these maritime issues are vitally important because they constitute the single most likely source of instability, and even military conflict with China. Moreover, such dangers are particularly acute as a result of the involvement of strong (and apparently rising) nationalist emotions on all sides, and the overall zero-sum nature of the sovereignty issues, which inclines claimants to adopt absolutist stances and in many instances over-react to perceived challenges to one’s position.
In order to contribute to the effective management of these disputes, and of China’s role in particular, it is vitally important for Washington to clearly understand their origins and drivers, especially in the case of China, as well as the limits, strengths, and dangers of various types of possible future U.S. responses.
Dispute Origins and Drivers
Many factors are acting to intensify the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. While some of these are directly associated with China, others are not. The most China-centric drivers include: Beijing’s overall increasing regional power and influence on one hand; and arguably intensifying levels of Chinese nationalism and the related impact of social media among the Chinese populace on the other hand.
In recent years, Beijing has significantly increased its capacity to operate both military and non-military (or para-military) naval and air assets along its littoral, thereby enhancing its ability to assert its long-standing and largely unchanged claims, through a greater overall maritime presence and an increased ability to police disputed areas and respond to the actions of others. Although other claimants are striving to increase their capacities in a similar manner, Beijing has thus far been the most successful, in large part due to its size and growing economic capacity.
The latter driver of Chinese behavior (i.e., social media) has served to intensify and expand the public’s awareness, in real time, of apparent challenges to Chinese sovereignty claims, thereby placing greater pressure on the Chinese leadership to respond quickly and resolutely. Chinese citizens hear about sovereignty-related incidents soon after they occur, exchange responses in very rapid fashion with one another through social media, and at time make excessive and ridiculous demands of the government. Although Beijing is by no means a passive recipient of such pressures, it is arguably fearful of appearing weak or inactive in the face of strong public sentiment.
The intensity of the Chinese response to sovereignty-related challenges or issues is reinforced by the emotional association of those issues with the violations of China’s sovereignty that occurred during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, and the fact that China’s collective leadership is more concerned with image and public pressures than in the past. Add to this the increasing level of strategic distrust between Washington and Beijing, and the result is a tendency toward over-reaction on the part of Chinese leaders and public alike.
Limits, Strengths and Dangers of U.S. Responses
Future prospects are not good. The combination of absolutist stances on sovereignty, intense nationalism, high public awareness, potentially major economic incentives, increasing civilian and military capabilities among the claimants, strategic calculations, and the absence of either clear and binding legal procedures or a supra-national authority to arbitrate or enforce disputes combine to prevent any significant movement toward any “resolution.” That said, it is conceivably possible to establish a more stable basis for mediating and hence controlling disputes among the claimants. All of the actors involved have an incentive to prevent an intense arms race or escalating pattern of conflict over disputed maritime territories. In the case of China, such outcomes would threaten its overall “peace and development” strategy and reinforce the notion that it is unwilling to develop or utilize legal procedures or norms to resolve differences with its neighbors.
Speculation abounds concerning the impact of Xi Jinping and the new leadership on the above dynamic. According to some analysts, Xi personally approved a step-by-step plan to intensify pressure on Japan, thereby rejecting a more moderate approach advocated by some in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Others point to Xi’s past experience with the PLA, his espousal of the “China Dream” concept that allegedly envisions a strong nation with a strong military, and his high-profile visits to military facilities to support the notion that the new leadership will employ a far more muscular, military-oriented foreign policy, especially toward maritime and other sovereignty disputes. At present, however, this general conclusion is largely speculative.
There is no quick fix for resolving these complex and long-standing maritime disputes. Many members of the media and outside analysts view each American or Chinese action with regard to the disputes as an indicator of alleged U.S. containment of China, Beijing’s presumed search for regional preeminence, or an effort to create exclusionary spheres of influence. While the manner in which both Washington and Beijing address the disputes can certainly have an effect on their larger strategic relationship, each maritime incident or action should not be regarded as a measure of the larger strategic issues. Ultimately, these disputes are about Asian nationalism and historical memories, not geostrategy, which should instill considerable caution among U.S. policymakers.
Dr. Michael D. Swaine is Senior Associate in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.