Options for China and Japan in the East China Sea

Options for China and Japan in the East China Sea

RUSI Newsbrief, 17 Jan 2013


The recent resurfacing of tensions between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea now seems to have died down. Yet given its perfect (or perhaps imperfect) combination of drivers – nationalism, resources and strategy – the dispute continues to present leaders in both countries with a real dilemma, and is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Economically interdependent, the destinies of the two states – as well as future regional economic growth – are bound inexorably together. And at the same time, the dispute seems only to worsen each time it resurfaces, with ever-deeper political repercussions. Given the fact that the two countries also have the region’s most powerful militaries after the United States, this is a worrying trend. Perhaps even more alarmingly, leadership changes in both states seem to favour a hardening of positions with regard to each other. The danger that this will have economic repercussions is therefore very real, raising the prospect of a potential economic decoupling.

Given these trends, what can be done to ameliorate the situation? There are three possible strategies for resolving the dispute. The first is to utilise the relevant international dispute-resolution mechanisms – such as the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea – to settle the issue of sovereignty in relation to the islands. The second is a strategy involving the shelving of the territorial issue to allow for the joint development of undersea gas fields in the contested areas, a factor said to underlie the entire dispute. The third involves reasserting total political control over the issue in order to maintain the status quo.

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