East China Sea: US and Chinese Foreign Policies

Introduction: Background of Conflict in the East China Sea

Recent times have seen tensions escalate between China and Japan, particularly regarding the uninhabited Islands in the East China Sea. The Chinese refer to these islands as Diaoyu while the Japanese call them Senkaku. Diaoyu/Senkaku (hereafter referred to as Senkaku) had been under the US occupation during the time it conflicted with Japan, although it had since been returned to Japan’s control. While the US was preparing to hand back the islands to Japan, China contested the sovereignty of Japan. Over time, tensions between Tokyo and Beijing have been high, a situation that has often drawn the US into the conflict on Japan’s side. Chang further argues that the US needs China to help in containing potential nuclear threats that could emanate from North Korea.1

Positions taken by the Chinese government regarding Japan’s occupation of Senkaku have attracted criticism from Washington on various occasions. For instance, in 2012, the Japanese government announced its intention to purchase three of the Senkaku islands (these islands remain as privately owned to date). This decision sparked opposition from the Chinese government and people since it served to damage further Sino-Japanese relations. The US gauged the conflict not only to help in diffusing the tensions but also to warn China that it would not hesitate to come to Japan’s aid in the event of a clash. Therefore, the tension between the US and Japan feeds directly into the Chinese-US conflict itself. This paper precisely addresses and/or compares how the US and China approach the East China Sea, as well as the effects that they have had over the region.

The US Foreign Policy Concerning the East China Sea

The period following September 11 saw the US shift its focus from the Southeast region to the Middle East. As a result, a power vacuum emerged, which China sought to exploit by expanding its military capabilities. Much recently, under the Obama administration, the US resolved to regain its control of the region. A strategy, commonly termed as ‘the Pivot’, was then launched where the US would reposition itself in the Pacific region without necessarily confronting China. To achieve this goal, the US needed to court long-time allies, particularly Japan and South Korea. The process was complicated by the fact that the allies possessed separate agendas that did not automatically coincide with US’ aspirations. For instance, Japan wanted military support to repel China if the need arose. As such, the US was wary of committing itself to any of its ally’s agendas at the expense of infuriating China. China is an indispensable trading partner of the United States. As a result, its military capacity cannot be underestimated.

As observed, the US favours Japan’s occupation of the Senkaku Islands, a situation that has infuriated China, thus worsening China-US relations. China has expressed interest in controlling the entire East China Sea much as it has succeeded in the South China Sea. Shambaugh argues that China’s motive for controlling the former region is to oust the US Navy from the Okinawa bases.2 Currently, the US poses the only impediment against China’s ascension to dominance over its South-East Asian neighbours, including Japan. Conversely, the US (and much of the West) wants China to follow the provisions of international marine law. Specifically, the US wants Beijing to acknowledge that Senkaku is legitimately a Japanese territory. Notwithstanding, the Obama administration was frequently attacked concerning its unwillingness to act in the defence of its ally (Japan), despite China’s incessant attempts to topple order in the East Sea region.

Under the Obama administration, the US’ policy over the East China Sea had been that of non-intervention. In other words, the US avoided any possible conflict. Instead, it opted to rebuke China while at the same time threatening to impose sanctions. However, these threats were not carried out. In 2016, Senator Marco Rubio proposed a bill entitled the South China Sea and the East China Sea Sanctions of 2016. According to Civic Impulse, if passed, the bill would back various sanctions against the Chinese government over its continued aggression in the East China Sea.3 Although the bill was not enacted, it nevertheless captures the mood of the US’ leadership, particularly the legislative body, regarding China’s operations in the aforementioned region. In the US, it is believed that the repositioning of China in the East China Sea could threaten security and economic relations, a move that might result in dire repercussions. Segal backs this opinion by arguing that once China takes over the contested sea, it will deploy military bases similar to what it did in the South China Sea.4 As a result, the movement of commercial ships will become restricted, thus interfering with the course of international trade.

Previous dealings between the US and China over the South China Sea may provide insight into how the US is likely to approach future tensions in the East China Sea. In the past, the US demanded China operate by international laws regarding navigation in the high waters. This demand was made during the height of the South Sea conflict where the Obama administration showed a commitment to protecting the freedom of navigation. For instance, in the South Sea region, the US expanded its cooperation with nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam, which have constantly accused China of illegitimately appropriating the South Sea. Such actions underscore the US expectations of China. The US has already openly approved the recent ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, Hague. In the dispute filed by the Philippines in 2013, China was accused of obstructing the former nation’s ships from navigating the South China Sea. By endorsing the outcome of the Permanent Court of Adjudication, the US was sending a clear message to China that the latter country should follow international provisions and norms on navigation.

China’s Foreign Policy Concerning the East China Sea

In an attempt to demystify China’s foreign policy over the East China Sea, it would be necessary to recount recent events that have occurred in the said region involving China’s participation. While China has long been involved in negotiations over borders, it has no record of making deliberate attempts to avoid intended crises. This unwillingness to resolve international disputes has caused territorial disputes involving China to become prolonged. Between 2008 and 2015, China and Japan were engaged in protracted negotiations at reaching a final determination. However, China gradually shifted from being a partly-willing negotiator to disrupting the very negotiations. Bader and his colleagues argue that the talks failed because China had high expectations accompanied by indisposition to compromise.5 As such, China’s foreign policy on the East China Sea is one that is not built on efforts to achieve a stable status quo. Instead, China is driving ambition to position itself strategically over the region, essentially edging the Japanese administration out of Senkaku.

During the Sino-Japanese negotiations, Japan often complained about China’s unwillingness to abide by the guidelines that informed these negotiations. China’s noncooperation culminated in the October 2015 announcement by Japan that a deadlock had occurred. The Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism (MACM) was conceptualised as a tool for preventing unwarranted clashes between militaries of the countries out of a misunderstanding. Bader et al. describe MACM as a crisis management tool that was put in place to prevent deterioration of negotiations in the future.6 However, given China’s disinterest in finding a long-term solution, MACM was bound to fail. In 2014, the Chinese government announced plans to intensify its air surveillance over Senkaku. Before making this announcement, China had not made consultations with the Japanese government. This situation infuriated the Japanese administration, thereby worsening diplomatic relations between the nations.

Critics of Beijing view its managing of the East China Sea crisis as bullying at best. The claim may be back up by China’s assertiveness over Senkaku. Such assertiveness serves various purposes, all of which appear to be aimed at strengthening the country’s political power at Japan’s expense. For instance, China only began expressing keen interest in Senkaku after learning that Japan and Taiwan were making separate plans to explore hydrocarbon deposits in its (China) region. China believes that controlling these fuel deposits will strengthen its economic power. As much as this resolve could be driven by the desire to push US military bases from Okinawa, it could also be motivated by utter malevolence. It is believed that the Chinese have a deep-rooted hatred for their Japanese neighbours, owing to Japan’s ruthless occupation of China before 1945. Indeed, Yahuda argues that the tensions would be less serious if Senkaku was occupied by another country other than Japan.7

Future Relations: What the Trump-led US Means for the China-US Conflict

Part of the Chinese policy of the region is informed by the carefulness not to provoke an armed conflict with the US. While it has been argued that a US-led onslaught of China is hard to happen, the Chinese are not particularly sure about this claim. While the Obama administration pursued a policy of non-intervention, the recent election of Donald Trump could reshape China’s approach to the East China Sea. To illustrate the importance of a Trump-led US to the region, it would be important to mention that Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader who met Trump upon his election. Trump has openly criticised China, particularly regarding the “One Policy” where the then-president-elect appeared to underscore Taiwan’s sovereignty. Hence, many people see President Trump as unwilling to avoid conflict with China if the chance presents itself.

With a more confrontational administration in position in Washington, China must revisit its approach to the East China Sea conflict. Although the Chinese administration has stressed on several occasions that it is ready for armed conflict, there is the need to realise that the new administration will probably reshape its policy much differently from that of the forerunner. The US could increase the resolution to pursue its interests in the region on top of protecting a long-time ally. When this situation happens, China could find itself during either armed conflict or economic war. Nevertheless, Rosecrance and Miller explain that both countries would suffer insurmountable losses from either type of conflict.8 China is already US’ biggest trade partner, controlling over $1.5 trillion in treasury bonds. Thus, the interdependence between the two may serve to prevent the existing tensions from degenerating into armed conflict.

Notwithstanding, the US will need to act with boldness if it desires to regain its influence in the pacific zone. For instance, China already requires aircraft entering the contested region to provide its information to the Chinese Ministry of Defence. This move is part of China’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) rolled out in November 2014. Consequently, the US must categorically oppose such requirements because abiding by them will be opening itself to China’s bullying. The region that China has enacted an ADIZ on includes parts that are legitimately under the Japanese administration, particularly Senkaku. Luckily, the US already registered an unwillingness to submit to China’s maltreatment. When the B-52 bomber crossed into China’s ADIZ, the US operators declined to offer any information as demanded.


The US must take a definite stand regarding the Senkaku. Under the Obama administration, the US took a neutral stand on the matter, which only served to appease China at the expense of a faithful ally. Therefore, the US should demonstrate more commitment to Japan by even providing it with military support, if needed. The US-Japan Mutual Defence Treaty of 1954 binds America to provide military support if Japan faces a security threat. While Japan may not demand the US to honour the treaty, it would be in US interest to do so, given that a shift of alliances by Japan would undermine US’ power over the pacific region. In the past, it has been suggested that Shizo’s administration had been contemplating a possible alliance with Russia. Therefore, the US needs all its allies to continue enjoying dominance across the world.


Bader, Jeffrey, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael McDevitt. “Keeping the South China Sea in Perspective.” The Foreign Policy Brief 2, no. 1 (2014): 1-12.

Chang, Gordon. “Obama’s Sanctions Finally Hit North Korea where it Hurts—in China.” The Beast Daily. Web.

Civic Impulse. “S. 3509 — 114th Congress: South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act of 2016.” Congress. Web.

Rosecrance, Richard, and Steven Miller. The Next Great War?: The Roots of World War I and the Risk of US-China Conflict. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2014.

Segal, Gerald. “East Asia and the “Constrainment” of China.” International Security 20, no. 4 (2006): 107-135.

Shambaugh, David. “Coping with a Conflicted China.” The Washington Quarterly 34, no. 1 (2011): 7-27.

Yahuda, Michael. “China’s New Assertiveness in the South China Sea.” Journal of Contemporary China 22, no. 81 (2013): 446-459.


  1. Gordon Chang, “Obama’s Sanctions Finally Hit North Korea where it Hurts—in China,” The Beast Daily, Web.
  2. David Shambaugh, “Coping with a Conflicted China,” The Washington Quarterly 34, no. 1 (2011): 15.
  3. Civic Impulse, “S. 3509 — 114th Congress: the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act of 2016.” Congress, Web.
  4. Gerald, Segal, “East Asia and the “Constrainment” of China,” International Security 20, no. 4 (2006): 101.
  5. Jeffrey Bader, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael McDevitt, “Keeping the South China Sea in Perspective,” The Foreign Policy Brief 2, no. 1 (2014): 4.
  6. Ibid, 5.
  7. Michael Yahuda, “China’s New Assertiveness in the South China Sea,” Journal of Contemporary China 22, no. 81 (2013): 447.
  8. Richard Rosecrance, and Steven Miller, The Next Great War?: The Roots of World War I and the Risk of US-China Conflict (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2014), 12.