It seems that China has not yet been satisfied with its vast terrestrial territory. Seeking for more resources to sustain its population now reaching more than a billion and its ambitions to become a potential regional hegemon, it has sought to look for its surrounding seas, which for some reason or another bear its name, for new natural supplies. This movement over maritime areas resulted to the contestation of the historically strong nation over such territories. On its east side, it faces one of its former oppressors over Senkaku Islands or Diaoyu / Diaoyutai to the Chinese. On its south, it has to confront with a number of countries which it had good historical and cultural relations but has changed following the entry of the United States over Spratlys and Paracel Islands. The article of Andy Yee compares these ongoing disputes over waters using a framework that looks into the power balance between China and its rivals and analyzes how it acts differently because of this power dynamics.
The article uses two frameworks in examining the difference of the possible scenarios between the disputes at the East and South China Seas. Bargaining model of war is used in the context of “[…] provid(ing) a way of thinking about war as a bargaining process, linking the causes, prosecution, termination, and consequences of war. It sees the essence of conflict as disagreement over resource allocation. […] In other words, the key issue is uncertainty about the capabilities or resolve of the disputants.” On the other hand, the hegemonic stability theory assumes that due to the almost similar standing in terms of power, cooperation among aspiring powers is less likely, if not at all impossible.
The paper argues that there is a better chance of cooperation among competing parties in the South China Sea rather than between China and Japan due to the fact that the asymmetric power relations between unequal states nurture an environment that is inclined to compromise. Weaker states do not have a tendency, so much so the resources, to aspire to become a hegemon, thus concerning themselves more with the pragmatic products of cooperation. This is evident with the numerous regime creation efforts done by the claimants of Spratlys at the level of ASEAN. China, in interacting with the members of ASEAN, is more inclined to cooperate with them as it has already calculated through the Mischief Reef incident that nobody within the region can competently compete with it. This has led to the relatively improving activities in the contested area such as joint exploration talks and having a declaration of a Code of Conduct among states.
The opposite can be said to the case of East China Sea. Two increasingly powerful states, both competing in almost every aspect — economy, military, nationalism, among other things — without that much interaction regarding the area until recently, are adamant to even talk about matters of cooperation. In the paradoxical sense of things, the lack of a major violent interaction in the Senkaku risks both countries into entering a much bigger conflict in the near future. Unpredictability of the capabilities of the parties in the East China Sea can make one of them spontaneously attack the other without considering if the attacked can defend itself.
The article also discusses in the constructivist perspective on how cooperation and distrust happen in these problems. The newfound identity by China and several Southeast Asian countries caused by economic development lead the parties of the South China Sea dispute to democratize and opt for cooperation for practical reasons. In addition, the entrance of the United States into the scene at the south made China retreat and sought cooperation with the members of ASEAN. This is not the case for China and Japan as the economically empowered Chinese works by the invocation of nationalist sentiments as its primary propaganda, if not an ideology, against its archrival. Yee concluded by stating that trust-building measures should be considered in both cases: for the East China Sea situation, to start working on a cooperative arrangement; for the South China Sea dispute, to contextualize the enforceability of a Code of Conduct.
One thing noticeable within the discussion in the article is that it lacks the consideration of domestic factors in looking into how states will opt to cooperate. This is most profound in the case of South China Sea disputes, particularly the behavior of the Philippines towards China. The author saw the disputants as all wanting cooperation with China but the current events show that some do not want to take this track. The actions done by the current Aquino administration to internationalize the dispute and modernize the armed forces veers away from the assumption of the article. This shows that the Philippines, probably the sole staunch ally of the United States in this part of Southeast Asia, is torn between appeasing its neighbour and affirming its relations with its former colonial master.
The current aggressive stance of China in South China Sea can also be attributed to domestic factors. In a report by the International Crisis Group, the overlapping mandates of various ministries and agencies of the Chinese government, their lack of coordination and competing individual interests causes the Chinese behavior. This has been probably brought by the change of leadership within the Chinese Communist Party as Xi Jinping has not yet consolidated his power unlike his predecessor. Until the new leadership has established its hold over the Politburo, this aggression will be seen within the next few years.
An empowered China is both a blessing and a curse for Japan: economically, China could serve as a major trading power of Japan, but politically, it fuels nationalist sentiments from both countries as the two do not really have a singular and stable ideological tool except this. Currently, Japan has the upper hand in the Senkakus but with a dwindling economy and the unstoppable rise of China, balance of power might change sooner as we may think.
Image source: Masataka Morita / AP / NBC