The Rewards of Conflict: Domestic Political Incentives and Territorial Disputes in East Asia


China watchers need no introduction to the acrimonious disputes over islands in the South and East China Seas.  While China in Focus typically focuses on contemporary news, we also strive to inform our readers on long-running issues of importance to U.S.-China relations and the global community at large.  This month, we are pleased to publish several papers written by students in Professor Barbara Walter's  International Politics and Security  graduate course.  Each week, we will release one paper that explores the conflict from a specific angle.  We hope that these papers will provide not only food for thought, but also an enriched understanding of the complexities and challenges underlying all international politics.  Enjoy!


Conflicts between China and neighboring countries over overlapping maritime claims have flared up in recent years for several reasons.  Increasing competition for resources, strategic considerations, and the willingness of politicians to stoke nationalist sentiment have been major drivers of intensifying conflict in every case. However, disputes also differ in important ways, and there is likely to be no one size fits all  solution to them.


(Photo credit: stratman²)

Thanks to UN regulations on Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), territorial control of the waters around island groups such as the Spratlys and Senkaku/Diaoyu would grant exclusive access to rich fishing waters and undersea hydrocarbon deposits (O'Rourke 2013, Moura 2013, Dosch 2013).  Japan, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia are all among the world's top per capita fish consumers (FAO 2012), and commercial fishing interests wield considerable clout in these countries (Zhang 2012, Manicom 2013, Bird 2012).  In recent years population depletion and restrictions on fishing in international waters have reduced the catches of their fleets (FAO 2012).  Expanded territorial waters would provide unhindered access to additional fisheries.  In addition, geologists have identified likely oil and gas deposits beneath the seabed around both island groups (Moura 2013, Dosch 2011).  Rising global energy prices threaten growth in resource-poor but energy-intensive economies like those of Japan and China, and securing access to energy is a major concern of both nations' leaders. Vietnam and Malaysia, both rapidly modernizing and increasingly energy-hungry, are similarly poor in energy resources and their leaders likewise preoccupied with energy security. Regardless of the political system, politicians are loath to alienate key interest groups or invite economic stagnation. As such, elected officials in Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines and Communist Party insiders in China and Vietnam are all under pressure to aggressively prosecute claims that would greatly benefit powerful constituencies and reduce vulnerability to possible energy shocks.

Shifting strategic goals and capabilities are also a major factor.  As its power has grown, China has increasingly sought to assert control over the waters within the so-called First Island Chain , the long string of islands separating the East and South China Seas from the Pacific Ocean (Economist 2012).  Gaining dominion over key island groups would further this goal.  Furthermore, the Spratlys lie among some of the world's busiest shipping lanes, which are hugely important to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.  These nations receive some 80% of their oil via this route (Dosch 2011).  Control over the islands would give China tremendous leverage over these countries.  As for Senkaku/Diaoyu, controlling the waters around the islands would allow China to drive a geographic wedge between two of its biggest regional rivals and ensure access to the open sea for its newly built blue-water navy (O'Rourke 2012).  It would also allow the Chinese to partially encircle Taiwan and make intervention by Taiwan's allies in the event of a military conflict more difficult and costly.  For these reasons, leaders in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam all view Chinese control over disputed waters as a serious potential threat, and as such they all have a compelling interest in preventing it.

A third common factor is the desire of politicians to play to nationalism among their constituents.  The most recent tiff over Senkaku/Diaoyu erupted after Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara, one of Japan's leading right-wing politician, announced plans to purchase the islands (McCurry 2012).  The Japanese right has a long history of playing to anti-Chinese sentiments among the electorate, and stirring up nationalist fervor against Beijing is a reliable vote-getting tactic (Bhutoria 2013).  While the right's Chinese equivalents may not worry about winning elections, they find appeals to nationalism no less useful.  Over the years re-directing popular anger against Japan has been a go-to tactic for the CCP whenever criticism of its governance has begun to mount, and it tacitly encouraged anti-Japanese protests throughout the country after Ishihara's announcement (Choi 2012), only intervening when they turned violent.  Vietnam and the Philippines have experienced their own nationalistic surges in response to the Spratly dispute, with local politicians similarly inclined to exploit them (Dosch 2011).

Given the long-running nature of the disputes, it is difficult to be optimistic about resolving them.  Any potentials solutions will differ case by case.  Agreements between Japan and Taiwan over fishing rights in the waters around Senkaku/Diaoyu and between Japan and China on a tentative plan to cooperatively explore energy extraction in the area indicate that mutually satisfactory settlements are possible in this case. However, the fact that the latter settlement was sabotaged when a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese vessel (O'Rourke, 2013) demonstrates the fragility of such agreements.  Moreover, in a case like that of the Spratlys, in which more actors are involved and several are already entrenched in the disputed territory, it is much harder to envision any sort of negotiated settlement.

The following two tabs change content below.

Gregory Lekich

Start typing and press Enter to search