CSIS – AMTI Brief – April 14, 2016

East China Sea Tensions: Approaching a Slow Boil


Mounting tensions over the disputed Senkaku Islands have been a constant in Sino-Japanese relations since Tokyo purchased three of the five islands in 2012. For the last four years, Chinese coast guard vessels have regularly patrolled in the vicinity of the East China Sea islands and have often entered within the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea around the Senkakus, engaging in a cat-and-mouse game with their Japanese counterparts tasked with maintaining Tokyo’s control over the features. Meanwhile, People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) patrols around the Senkakus and Japan’s southern islands have led to regular scrambles by the Japanese Air Self Defense Force.

It is easy to assume that tensions in the East China Sea have settled into a new equilibrium, with developments in the South China Sea dominating international headlines. But the relatively quiet, if still tense, status quo around the Senkakus masks worrying trends that suggest a new, more dangerous phase of the dispute could be on the horizon. Read more…

Featured Graphics


Featured Analysis

Creating Seamless Maritime Security Coalitions in the Indo-Pacific
Vice Admiral Hideaki Kaneda

The rapid expansion of China’s political, economic, and military power in the Indo-Pacific presents both opportunities and challenges for the region. China’s rapid military build-up and assertive behavior could heighten tensions, especially over regional maritime disputes, and produce seriously adverse effects.

A policy of outright containment or isolation of China would be both inappropriate and counterproductive. Regional states should instead seek to improve cooperation among themselves in order to pressure Beijing to conform to, and fulfill its responsibilities under, established international law and norms. They must also establish a defense posture that will allow them to hedge against a deterioration in the regional security environment. Read more… 

Colombo Port City and the Limits of India’s Regional Diplomacy

Sarah Watson

On March 19, after more than a year in limbo, the Sri Lankan government announced it had officially given the go-ahead to resume work on Colombo Port City (CPC). A massive $1.4 billion, 575 acre project that combines port facilities with residential and commercial development, CPC is being built as a joint venture between the Sri Lankan government and China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), a Chinese state-owned construction company. The decision has rekindled alarm in India that the project will give China a naval base just 150 miles off India’s southeast coast. Read more… 

Flexible Response to Deter in the South China Sea

Truong Minh Vu and Ngo Di Lan

China’s growing assertiveness regarding maritime disputes in the South China Sea is not the result of a burst of nationalism or any short-term calculation. In fact, China has consistently pursued a single long-term strategy with the effective control of the entire South China Sea as its ultimate goal.

This strategy has five core features. First and foremost, it seeks to change the territorial status quo gradually, island-by-island. This stands in contrast to a strategy whereby a country tries to gobble up the entire disputed territory in one fell swoop. China first occupied the Paracel Islands in 1974 and then slowly expanded its presence southward by attacking Vietnam’s islands in the Spratly chain in the 1980s. Most recently, after a tense standoff with the Philippines, China took effective control of the Scarborough Shoal, thereby changing the territorial status quo further in its favor. China pursues this course of action in order to gain incremental advantage in the dispute while avoid upsetting the other disputants too much, thereby preventing a unified and effective response from other countries. Read more… 

Podcast: Itu Aba and Taiwan’s Amicus Brief

Greg Poling, Ben Bland, Nigel Li and Dustin Wang

AMTI Director Greg Poling sits down with Ben Bland, Nigel Li, and Dustin Wang to discuss recent trips by journalists to Itu Aba (Taiping Island), Taiwan’s only occupied feature in the Spratlys, and the amicus curiae brief about Itu Aba that a group of Taiwanese legal scholars recently filed with the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Ben Bland is the South China correspondent for the Financial Times and visited Itu Aba in March. Nigel Li is president of the Chinese (Taiwan) Society of International Law and Dustin Wang is a professor at National Taiwan Normal University. Both were authors of the amicus curiae brief. Read more… 

How Elections Could Change Manila’s South China Sea Policy (Or Not)

Richard Javad Heydarian

Over the past few years, the Philippines has emerged as China’s most intransigent neighbor. In less than a decade, Filipino-Chinese relations went from a “golden age” to arguably Asia’s most toxic bilateral relationship. China has repeatedly characterized the Philippines as a “trouble maker,” while Filipino officials, like their counterparts in Washington, often equate China’s actions in disputed waters with “bullying.”

Most crucially, the Philippines is also the only country, so far, to have taken Chinato international court over the South China Sea disputes. To China’s consternation, the Philippines, under the newly-approved Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), has also granted greater basing access to U.S. forces, including facilities close to contested waters. Read more… 

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