Chinese surveillance ships near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, April 2013 © Times Asi (CC BY 2.0)

Symbols for Competition

The disputes over islands in the East and South China Seas are as much about resources and territories as they are about reaffirming national sentiments. Yet the chances of outright conflict remain slim.

China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas has been causing alarm from Washington to Tokyo. In the East China Sea, China’s on-going disputes with Japan over control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and with South Korea over the island of Ieodo/Suyan, contributed to China’s decision in November 2013 to set up an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering the disputed territories. This raised fears that a similar move would be made in the South China Sea, where China is involved in territorial disagreements with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan over, among others, the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands and Scarborough Shoal.

In fact, in January 2014, the legislature of China’s Hainan Province declared that foreign fishermen would need China’s permission to fish within two-thirds of the South China Sea. China has stated its intention to police these waters, confiscating the catches of any foreign fishing boats and levying fines on their owners. Neighboring countries have protested that China’s claim of sovereignty over these waters is illegitimate, and foreign fishing boats are likely to continue exploiting these waters, increasing the chances for diplomatic incidents – or even conflict – in the region.

China’s image abroad is deteriorating over the island conflicts

In the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) 2014, China receives a score of 7 out of 10 points for regional cooperation. The report notes that “China’s efforts to improve its image abroad (not least by cultivating its ‘soft power’) were wrecked in Asia due to escalations in eastern territorial conflicts (Senkaku/Diaoyu islands) and in the South China Sea (Paracel, Spratly Islands) as well as the on-going ambitious modernization program of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.”

Indeed, China has been making serious efforts to increase its naval power in recent years; its first aircraft carrier was commissioned in 2012, and it is reported to be building another. In January 2014, the Chinese government newspaper China Ocean News announced that China would base a new 5,000-tonne patrol ship at the Paracels, which is likely to increase tensions with the Philippines and Vietnam over these contested islands.

The islands in dispute are largely uninhabited and uninhabitable. But the waters surrounding them are important sources of oil and gas as well as vital fishing sites. As the region industrializes and consumption grows, the countries in East and Southeast Asia have increasingly been brought into competition for resources. Succeeding in laying claim to the disputed territories would boost the industrial potential of each of the countries involved.

But resource competition is not the only factor at play. As the BTI 2014 report notes, nationalism is on the rise in the region; in the Philippines, for example, the conflict over Scarborough Shoal and other territories in 2012 “led to a rise of anti-Chinese sentiments in the population and among the political elite. Public protests were held in front of the respective embassies, some Philippine politicians called for a boycott of Chinese goods, and most Chinese travel agencies suspended tours to the Philippines.” Each of the countries in the region sees in the disputed territories a vehicle for affirming nationalist sentiment in opposition to competing powers.

China’s claims in both the East and South China Seas are based on its supposed historical ownership of the area in question. The country’s “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea was first conceived as an eleven-dash line by the Republic of China, the nationalist predecessor to the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the precursor to today’s Republic of China in Taiwan. In 1953, the PRC published a map including today’s nine-dash line, which both Taiwan and China use as their basis for claims over the area that includes the Paracels and the Spratly Islands.

Vietnam and the Philippines base their claims on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which excludes historical claims as a basis for jurisdiction. Vietnam and the Philippines have both appealed to UNCLOS to support their claims, but international tribunals will not necessarily come up with a ruling that will be accepted by all sides in a series of disputes that have roots in prickly visions of individual sovereignty.

Nationalism is growing in the region

Before the West came to Asia, borders were unsettled and ambiguous. Westphalian statehood in the region is largely a product of the post-Second World War period, and the new nations of the region, as Francois Godement from the European Council on Foreign Relations notes, in large part share “two cultural traits: identity-based or even ethnicity-based nation building, and a lack of the historical guilt usually associated with postcolonial societies.” The result is “a sort of nationalism without guilt”.

In nations such as Vietnam and Korea, independence and citizens’ rights were achieved through military struggle, and the assertive nationalism born in the struggle is now fuelling a desire to maintain rights under perceived threat from outside. Japan after the Second World War experienced a long period of re-examination and pacifist self-identification. But today, a new, more prominent form of nationalism is emerging in response to a decline in status brought about by Japan’s economic woes and the ascendancy of China. Japan’s increasing nationalism, expressed in incidents such as the December 2013 visit of Japanese PM Shinzo Abe to honor Japan’s war dead at the Yasukuni Shrine, has triggered discomfort in China, which still harbors resentment towards its historical enemy for its actions in the Second World War, among other things.

Chinese nationalism is growing too: as its communist ideology begins to lose appeal, patriotic nationalism is in part taking its place as a unifying social force. The country’s economic rise has been spectacular, but even as China has become the leading force in Asia, other countries have become concerned, raising fears at home of hostility from abroad. With each country in a mood to assert its own rights, the disputes become a means of competing symbolically with other nations, as much about reaffirming national identity as about the resources and territories involved.

Regional players may well avoid outright conflict

Tensions are high and international observers are concerned that conflict could erupt. But it is not clear that it is in the interests of any of the players to go so far as to provoke open violence, beyond minor skirmishes between individual vessels and patrol ships. In January 2014, The Japan Times reported that, in fact, China’s leaders have agreed an explicit policy of avoiding confrontation with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu. With Chinese president Xi Jinping at its head, the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee is said to have decided in October 2013 that China has “no intention of fighting with Japan and Japan does not have the courage to fight with China”.

Assuming the report is accurate, China’s military posturing may be more about asserting itself as a power in the region than about any real desire to resolve the disputes through aggression. If this is so, the disputes look set to continue for a long time – but outright conflict may well be avoided.

Justine Doody is an editor for the China & Asia and Wider Europe programmes of the European Council on Foreign Relations. She is the English-language editor of China Analysis, a quarterly survey of current thinking in Chinese academic and policy circles, published by ECFR in cooperation with the Asia Centre in Paris. She is also a writer for the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s SGI News and the BTI Blog.

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