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The People’s Republic of (PR) China contests maritime territory in the South China Sea (SCS) as well as in the East China Sea (ECS).

While in the SCS it has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, in the ECS it is quarreling with Japan. The claims of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan are identical with those of Beijing in theory, but in practice Taipei largely refrains from taking active measure to secure maritime space in the SCS and ECS. On the other hand, the PRC has translated its growing military might into behavior that is perceived as assertive by its maritime neighbors. However, most observers would agree that Beijing pursues its maritime interests in the SCS in more aggressive ways as opposed to the ECS. Beijing’s reclamation, occupation, and militarization of (artificial) islets, which occurs only in the SCS but not in the ECS, is a case in point. Thus, the question arises why the PR China acts more assertively in the SCS than in the ECS.

JAPAN AS A MARITIME POWER

The straightforward realist answer that is provided here is the strength of Japan. If the PR China aimed for regional hegemony (a claim that is countered by Beijing through its peaceful development rhetoric) and the domination of its near seas, it would be necessitated to grow markedly stronger than its maritime neighbor Japan in terms of several dimensions of power such as economic, military, and possibly and/or eventually cultural power; consequently transform its different sources of power into influence; and eliminate the role of the United States of America (USA), which are at present times thoroughly linked to Japan through an alliance treaty, as an offshore balancer in East Asia. The ever elusive concept of (different forms of) power is difficult to operationalize and to measure, but Japan’s so-called Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) and Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) are of such a technologically advanced state that any militarized efforts of the PR China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and Airforce (PLAAF) to challenge Tokyo’s claims in the ECS appear futile at present times. To the contrary, any escalatory actions by Beijing would aggravate exisitng security dilemma dynamics and induce Tokyo to protect its own claims more rather than less procatively. In contrast to the Southeast Asian claimant states in the SCS, Japan is in the possession of the crucial economic and technological foundations that enable it to balance against the PR China’s military prowess effectively.

THE USA AS AN OFFSHORE BALANCER

Japan is arguably the most important ally of the USA across the globe. In theory and practice, Washington wants to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon in the key areas of the world (that is Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia) so that it does not face any peer competitor on the global stage. The best way of preventing Beijing from ascending to a regional hegemon in East Asia is to support Tokyo. Whether minor Southeast Asian maritime states are dominated by the PR China in the SCS is, according to this logic, of relatively low importance. Only Tokyo can serve as a counterweight to Beijing’s real or perceived regional ambitions. Thus Japan’s interests enjoy priority and are supported by Washington to an extent that aims at efficient deterrence of militarized action through Beijing. Obviously, the USA do not extend a blank cheque to Japan since it is above all interested in a stable and prosperous East Asia, but Washington vowed, in order to send a clear signal to Beijing, under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security to support Tokyo in the case of a militarized conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands which lie at the heart of the ECS and are claimed by both the PR China and Japan.

 THE PR CHINA AS A RATIONAL ACTOR

If tensions in the SCS were apparently higher than in the ECS in recent years it is largely due to the fact that Beijing can do more in the SCS to secure its claims. After seven diplomatic crises erupted between the PR China and Japan in the ECS in the period from 1970 to 2012, Beijing has not markedly improved its position. The observation of these crises suggests that Communist Party leaders in Beijing came to the conclusion that the combined power of Japan and the USA is insurmountable at present times so that the rational way forward for the PR China is to pay heed to Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to ‘hide […] capabilities and bide […] time’ until it can pursue its claims in the ECS more assertively. Meanwhile, Beijing can test the waters in the SCS against economically and militarily much weaker opponents and the resolve of the USA which appears markedly lower than in the ECS. In sum, the PR China’s behavior in the SCS and ECS can serve, if analyzed carefully, as an indicator of its current geostrategic position in the maritime realm of East Asia and pursuit of regional ambitions.

Further analysis, currently available in German language can be read in the book “Die Volksrepublik China, Japan und das Ostchinesische Meer, 1970-2012”. To purchase to book visit the following link.