Territorial disputes in East Asia: Proxies for China-US strategic competition?

Author: Aileen S.P. Baviera, University of the Philippines

Recent tiffs between China and Japan, China and Vietnam and China and the US concerning the status of disputed islands and waters in the South and the East China seas possess a significance quite distinct from disagreements of the past. More specifically, previous contests amongst coastal states for sovereignty, fisheries, energy resources and maritime navigational rights continue to exist, but they are now being overshadowed by the rivalry among major powers in pursuit of the broader goal of establishing, and expanding, strategic influence.

Fueling such tensions are China’s growing military presence and rising influence in the Asia Pacific, and a concern in Washington that Beijing may become a credible peer competitor sooner than originally thought. Reminiscent of the ‘Cold War overlay’ which coloured global security discourse during the bipolar era, we may now be witnessing the emergence of a ‘US-China power competition overlay’ shaping East Asian regional security affairs – including the multiple long-standing territorial disputes in which China is a major protagonist. Simply put, the question at the heart of these rivalries is: who shall have dominance over these waters?

The East Asian seas play an important role in the strategic interests of the major powers. The US considers forward presence in the ‘East Asian littoral’ vital to its primacy and global strategic influence. US strategic assessments since 9-11 have also stressed the maritime domain in the context of countering terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

To China these seas are also essential, particularly to the defence of its long coastline and territorial integrity. Freedom to operate in these seas is moreover necessary if China is to realise its aspiration of projecting greater power via blue water naval capability. Furthermore, the South China Sea is traversed by strategic, but vulnerable, navigational routes that are critical to oil supplies from the Middle East bound for major oil-dependent economies such as China, Japan and Korea. And ensuring access to maritime resources in its exclusive economic zone has been a major justification for Chinese military build-up for many years.

China’s growing territorial assertiveness may also be a consequence of pressure politics from nationalists within the PLA-Navy. Other compounding factors that could lead to an increase in Chinese territorial activism in the coming years include leadership succession in the Communist Party by 2012, and improving cross-Straits relations under a KMT government in Taiwan. Against this backdrop and given close proximity of the American and Chinese navies, even more heated incidents relating to American military surveillance activities (such as the downing of the EP-3 spy plane over Hainan in 2001, and the harassment of the USNS Impeccable in 2009) might be expected to occur.

US has chosen to respond to China’s growing maritime assertiveness by seeking to become involved in the resolution of the territorial disputes. Aside from reiterating the importance of freedom of navigation and access to the global commons, Washington has clearly stated that peaceful dispute settlement was a matter of “national interest” to the US. It stressed the need for collaborative diplomatic processes in addressing the South China Sea disputes, gave Japan its public assurances that the Senkakus are covered by American security guarantees, and offered to host talks between China and Japan.

Interestingly, China’s purported adversaries in territorial disputes are either allies (Japan, the Philippines) or new security partners who are being sought out by the US (Vietnam and to a lesser extent, Malaysia and Indonesia).  US has also made maritime security cooperation with these countries (e.g. on piracy, search and rescue, disaster response) a major thrust of its regional diplomacy. US bilateral and multilateral cooperation on such issues may be leveraged in ways that can help ensure and legitimise its continuing military presence in East Asia, notwithstanding some regional states’ unease over its claiming a leadership role.  China, meanwhile, has agreed to resume consultations with ASEAN to draft a regional code of conduct in the South China Sea.

Whether the way forward is through a code of conduct or through the establishment of a multilateral maritime security regime, success will depend much on the willingness of US and China to cooperate with each other and their ability to act in concert with other regional players, particularly Japan and ASEAN. In the short to medium term, ASEAN-China and perhaps Japan-China codes of conduct may help reduce the chances of armed conflict arising from the territorial disputes. In the long term, however, an inclusive and cooperative maritime security regime may not only help mitigate the effects of territorial disputes but also reduce threats to maritime safety and security, create new modalities for clarifying maritime jurisdiction issues, and even serve as a building block of the emergent regional security architecture. Looking at the bigger picture, such a framework would help moderate great power rivalry to better ensure peace and stability in East Asia.

Aileen S.P. Baviera is a Professor of Asian studies and international relations, University of the Philippines. The author is affiliated with the project titled ‘Policy Alternatives for Integrating Bilateral and Multilateral Regional Security Approaches in the Asia Pacific’ under the MacArthur Foundation’s Asia Security Initiative. She was recently Visiting Fellow, ARC Center of Excellence in Policing and Security, based at the Australian National University and Griffith University.

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