Comparing China’s Claims and Policies in the East and South China Seas: Implications for Regional Security

Published date01 August 2016
Date01 August 2016
Subject MatterArticles
Comparing China’s Claims
and Policies in the East
and South China Seas:
Implications for Regional
Fang Yang1
Mingjiang Li2
What is the long-term impact of China’s territorial and maritime security policy in
East Asia on regional security? To address this question, we compared Chinas
claims and actual policies related to the East China Sea and South China
Sea and explored the motivations behind Beijing’s position and behaviour in
the two disputes. More specifically, we examined a few interrelated issues:
(a) similarities and differences in Chinas claims in these two disputes from
historical and legal perspectives, (b) Chinas strategic and security calcu-
lations and its changing tactics in handing these two disputes in the past
few years and (c) the major factors affecting China’s behaviour in the two
disputes. Our conclusion is that China is unlikely to make any major conces-
sions in the near future, and that regional security in East Asia will remain
fraught with many uncertainties for a fairly long period of time.
East China Sea dispute, South China Sea dispute, Chinese maritime security
policy, East Asian security
The East China Sea and South China Sea disputes between China and its neigh-
bouring countries in the recent years have again attracted worldwide attention.
Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, College of Asia and
the Pacific, Australian National University, Australia.
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Corresponding author:
Fang Yang, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacif‌i c Affairs, College of
Asia and the Pacif‌i c, Australian National University, Acton ACT 2601, Australia.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
3(2) 135–156
2016 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797016645451
136 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 3(2)
China and Japan, the two largest economies in East Asia, have been locked in a
series of tit-for-tat political and diplomatic spats and security conflicts since 2010.
The dispute is complicated by the Chinese historical animosities towards Japan
and Japanese perceptions of a rising China.
The South China Sea is also a regional flashpoint that has soured relations
between China and multiple Southeast Asian countries, in particular the Philippines
and Vietnam, and to a lesser extent, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. The dispute
is closely linked to the growing resource interest, various claimant countries’
increased capabilities, strong national sentiment, continued legal contestations and
third-party involvement. As a matter of fact, the American strategist Robert Kaplan
(2011) even posited that the South China Sea would be ‘the future of conflict’.
Owing to the different geographic locations and parties involved, as well as
various contentious events and crises, it is natural that most analysts would treat
the two disputes separately. Very often, observers attempt to draw conclusions
about China’s intentions from either one of the maritime territorial disputes.
In-depth studies on a single case are certainly very useful for revealing many
deep-rooted motivations for China’s actions in the dispute. We contend, however,
that a more useful approach is to compare the differences and similarities in
China’s policies and behaviour in the two disputes in order to identify some of the
underlying domestic and international factors that shape China’s views and
policies towards maritime territorial disputes in East Asia.
To achieve the objective, the article is structured as follows. The first section
includes a review of Chinese claims in the two seas from historical and legal per-
spectives and a comparative study of both claims. The second section comprises a
comparative analysis of Chinese policies related to the two disputes throughout
1990s–2000s and the 2010s. The third section constitutes an analysis of the impact
of China’s maritime security policy on regional security in East Asia. The article
concludes with a summary of several major findings. First, China’s claims and
policies in the two disputes are both strongly influenced by China’s own under-
standing of the history of the disputes. Second, domestic nationalism continues to
serve as a major constraint on China’s policymaking in the two disputes. Third,
China is not fully prepared to adhere to the international laws—at least not the sets
of international laws and norms that other countries have been urging China to
adhere—to resolve the disputes. In fact, Beijing is more inclined to rely on the rise
of Chinese hard power to resolve the disputes, even though it may exercise restraint
under certain circumstances. The interaction of these closely intertwined factors
will continue to shape China’s non-compromising hard line on the disputes in the
East and South China Seas. We have reasons to believe that East Asian regional
security will continue to face many challenges.
China’s Claims in the East and South China Seas
China’s Claims in the East China Sea
Sino-Japanese disputes in the East China Sea comprises two parts: (a) a maritime
dispute caused by competing claims over overlapping exclusive economic zones

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