from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Preventing a Clash in the East China Sea

April 24, 2013

An aerial view shows Japan Coast Guard patrol ship, fishing boats from Taiwan and Taiwan's Coast Guard vessel sailing side by side near the disputed islands in the East China Sea. (Kyodo/Courtesy Reuters).
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CFR’s Senior Fellow for Japan studies, Sheila A. Smith, published a new CFR Contingency Planning Memo (CPM), “A Sino-Japanese Clash in the East China Sea.”  In it, she argues that the United States should encourage peaceful dispute resolution to the avoid further escalation in tension between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.  Below, CPA staff write a guest post about this aspect of the CPM.

Since the Obama administration pivoted towards Asia, U.S.-China relations have been complicated by territorial disputes in the seas of the Asia-Pacific. China’s assertiveness in the region is posing new challenges for U.S. foreign policy over the last years – first in the South China Sea and more recently in the East China Sea where Japan and China have a long-standing dispute over the sovereignty of a group of islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. These historical disagreements escalated in September 2012 when Japan purchased three of the islands from its private owner to prevent their use for provocations by nationalistic actors. Yet, China perceived the purchase as a threat to its own maritime interests and proceeded to assert its control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. In a new CPA Contingency Planning Memo, CFR senior fellow Sheila Smith lays out how an unintended military incident or a political miscalculation in a show of sovereignty in the East China Sea could lead to the escalation of the conflict, despite neither side being keen on using force.

A potential armed clash of the two largest powers in Asia does not only threaten Washington’s economic, political, and strategic interests in the region but also carries a lot of symbolic weight. U.S. treaty obligations and its longstanding alliance with Japan raise the expectations for U.S. involvement in case of a military escalation: “Japan’s postwar policy of military self-restraint and reliance on the United States for strategic protection, including its continued abnegation of nuclear weapons, would likely come to an end if the United States chose not to defend Japan against Chinese aggression.” Beyond the significance for the future of U.S.-Japan relations, this case could signal to other allies what to expect from the U.S. in the face of a rising China.

To prevent the escalation into an armed conflict, Smith recommends the United States encourage peaceful dispute resolution, urge Japan and China to avoid any steps that might escalate tensions, and remind Beijing that unilateral actions will not change U.S. recognition of Japan’s administrative control over the islands. The United States should also intensify efforts to create multilateral maritime risk reduction measures in the Asia-Pacific region, including the promotion of Chinese participation in regular Rim of the Pacific, regional fisheries and coast guard exercises. Finally, crisis management and defense consultations with Japan are necessary to develop clear alliance crisis procedures and to demonstrate U.S. preparedness for military assistance in case of an armed clash in and around the disputed islands.

“A Sino-Japanese Clash in the East China Sea” provides practical recommendations for U.S. policymakers to de-escalate tensions and avert a clash that could not only harm U.S. interests in the region but subvert the strategic goals of a rebalance towards Asia.

Access Sheila A. Smith’s new CPM, "A Sino-Japanese Clash in the East China Sea," here.