EastWest Direct: The East China Sea Standoff

News | December 11, 2013

One of the many legacy issues of Imperialist Japan and World War II, the longstanding Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute has been inflamed by actions and rhetoric from both China and Japan. The sharpening rhetoric and the increasing militarization of the dispute raise worries over a possible conflict in the region.  

Speaking with EWI interns Bethany Allen and YiYang Cao, Piin-Fen Kok—director of EWI's China, East Asia and United States program—discusses factors underlying the recent escalation of tensions and offers strategies to reestablish regional trust and cooperation in the East China Sea. 

While opposing claims of sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands have been a mild irritant in Japan-China relations for over 40 years, the dispute has escalated rapidly since 2010. What key factors have contributed to this escalation?

2010 was a turning point of sorts for China’s maritime diplomacy, as China became visibly more assertive in staking its maritime territorial claims against its neighbors. This included a diplomatic standoff with Japan over the incursion of a Chinese fishing trawler in waters off the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Japan has become increasingly concerned about China’s military modernization and what that means for the latter’s defense of its maritime claims in the East China Sea. 

For its part, though, Japan hasn’t helped matters much: It has refused to acknowledge that the sovereignty of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is disputed and nationalized the islands in 2012, much to China’s chagrin. 

Finally, China blames the U.S. rebalancing in Asia for emboldening Japan and other claimants in their maritime disputes against China, while the U.S. has reiterated its commitment to coming to Japan’s defense under the terms of the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty. All those tensions—and lots of historical baggage—are coming into play in light of China’s announcement of a new Air Defense Identification Zone, which covers the disputed islands.


Intense nationalist sentiment has played an important role in this conflict in both China and Japan. Yet China’s leadership faces a particularly delicate balancing act if it wants to harness the power of popular nationalism to bolster its claim on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Can you address the role of nationalism in both China and Japan, and explain why nationalism within China could potentially be a double-edged sword?

Because both countries face domestic challenges, especially on the economic front, nationalist sentiment is a useful tool for leaders to rally their domestic constituents and consolidate their own political standing within the country. In Japan, we saw the role nationalism played in the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute, as Tokyo’s Governor Shintaro Ishihara announced plans to purchase those islands eventually led to the national government buying them instead. And nationalism is at the core of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s slogan of a Chinese Dream, whose key premise is to “realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (shixian zhonghua minzu weida fuxing). Nationalism within China—and Japan—could potentially be a double-edged sword if strong sentiments within the population forces the hand of the leadership into doing things that could escalate rather than defuse tensions. This risk is particularly real in a relationship as emotional as that between China and Japan.


When China first announced the new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), many in the shocked global community declared it a poorly executed fumble possibly resulting from lack of communication or factional struggles. Yet less than two weeks after the announcement, there is now a growing consensus that the ADIZ is in fact a carefully calculated move in China’s larger strategy for the region. What is that larger strategy, and what role does the Chinese leadership envision for the new ADIZ? 

While we can only guess what exactly was in the central leadership’s minds as they signed off on a new ADIZ that overlaps with the ADIZs of Japan, Korea and Taiwan, I can see a few strategic objectives achieved with this move.

First, China is seeking to enforce a new status quo in the East China Sea that the rest of the region—especially Japan—will have to deal with. By including the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in its ADIZ, and requiring aircraft to report flight information when they enter the airspace over that area, China is responding, in its own terms, to Japan’s refusal to acknowledge the dispute. 

Second, China is putting its money where its mouth is and staking its claim as a maritime power. Other ADIZs are expected in the South China and Yellow Seas, where other maritime disputes exist. And it is hardly a coincidence that the ADIZ announcement and the maiden voyage of the Liaoning aircraft carrier down the South China Sea occurred within days of each other. 

Third, the ADIZ could test U.S. security commitments in the region. Politically, it could test the U.S. commitment to Japan’s defense in the event of armed conflict with China. As it is, the U.S. had to assuage Japanese concerns over its advice to American airlines to comply with the Chinese ADIZ’s flight reporting requirements; the Japanese government had instructed Japanese carriers not to do so. From a military perspective, the ADIZ could also be part of China’s anti-access strategy aimed at deterring the ability of U.S. forces to come to Taiwan’s defense in a timely manner.


Immediately after the announcement of the ADIZ, the U.S. Secretaries of Defense and Secretary of State condemned the Chinese ADIZ. American bombers were flown into the disputed airspace. What is the U.S. role in this dispute? 

The announcement of the ADIZ has presented an opportunity for the United States to reiterate its commitment to its security allies in the region and to its rebalancing strategy. This commitment had been questioned by Asian leaders when President Obama missed a few key summits in October due to the U.S. government shutdown. Although the U.S., Japan, Korea and China all flew military airplanes into the disputed airspace, I don’t think that any of them wants to intentionally start a military confrontation. The U.S. role would be to try and prevent the escalation of tensions on all sides that could lead to miscalculations and armed conflict.


During Vice President Biden’s recent trip to China, he did not demand the removal of the ADIZ. Was this tacit acceptance on the part of the Obama Administration of the ADIZ as a fait accompli?

It is impossible for the United States to demand the removal of the ADIZ, simply because other countries—especially Japan and Korea—have already established ADIZs in the region, and the United States itself has several ADIZs. At the same time, the U.S. faces a delicate political balancing act: On the one hand, it needs to show that it is standing firmly by its allies; on the other hand, it has to present itself as a trusted broker of peace and demonstrate that it is not out to contain China.


Beijing has stood firm against calls to rescind the ADIZ, so it seems likely that the new ADIZ, while dangerous, is here to stay. What steps do China, Japan and other regional players need to take in order to prevent escalation and establish deeper trust and cooperation in the East China Sea?

First, a mechanism for crisis communication and management needs to be implemented, at least between China and Japan (perhaps facilitated by the United States), if not involving other regional players as well. China and Japan have had on and off talks about a defense hotline. That would come in pretty handy at a time like this. Second, regional players need to engage in serious dialogue to develop rules of the road for their militaries to deal with one another in the region. The United States could play a very useful role in facilitating these discussions among all parties concerned.