Security Dilemma: China Increases Tensions in the East China Sea

East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone

On November 23, the Chinese government released a map of the “East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone.” The area of this map includes a chain of disputed islands claimed by both Japan and China. These islands, while uninhabited, contain access to fishing grounds and are potentially rich in energy resources. A spat over the islands occurred when a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese naval vessel in 2010, prompting a blame game between Chinese and Japanese leaders.

While flying within this zone, all foreign aircraft must identify themselves before entering and obey all orders from Beijing. Non-compliance with these orders would subject the aircraft to “defensive emergency measures” by Chinese forces, which security analysts have interpreted as a threat of military action. Major questions remain: Could this policy spark a small-scale confrontation that would escalate into a real military conflict? If so—and if Japanese forces were to be fired upon—the United States would be bound by treaty to assert itself into the conflict as well. This would therein bring about the first serious military confrontation between the world’s two major super powers.

Why does the U.S. care about a patch of uninhabited water in the Pacific? Is U.S. military presence in the region truly necessary to protect national interests? Since the Cold War ended, the United States has steadily expanded its military presence in Southeast Asia, creating a security umbrella under the auspices of protecting its allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. A second and not as widely publicized purpose is to balance the power of China, whose thunderous rise is seen to many policy experts as a looming threat.

Looking back at instances of great, dynamic power shifts, we know that dramatic changes in the balance of power increase the likelihood of conflict. Taking into account the ascent of Germany in the lead-up to World War I along with the destabilizing effect of its rapid militarization on Europe, it is easy to see that power shifts matter. In fact, these shifts often lead to misperceptions regarding the rising power’s intentions, causing a heightened security dilemma, which can lead to escalating conflict and eventually war.

U.S. military presence throughout the region has been a major source of tension between the United States and China for over a decade. Bilaterally, the two countries have made great efforts to strengthen relations between them—businesses, diplomats, politicians, doctors, colleges, and cultural exchange programs have all worked to increase connections and foster cooperation.

Despite the increased economic and cultural interaction between the two countries, military and security relations have actually worsened. Chinese military leaders have claimed that the United States is consciously working to contain, subvert, and weaken China. Their U.S. counterparts have argued that U.S. presence is necessary to protect American national interests in the region. Making matters worse, conspiracy theories abound among the Chinese military elite, with many believing that the United States has been manufacturing crises in order to justify its military presence in the region.

If the international relations theory of realism is true, it should not be a surprise that China is attempting to balance U.S. power by asserting itself militarily in the region and increasing the likelihood of conflict. This map release—along with the edict of potentially shooting down foreign aircraft—has been met with the expected harsh criticism from both U.S. and Japanese leaders. Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about China’s announcement.

Could this just be a power play by China that eventually putters out? Now that there is a literal line being drawn, along with the very real threat being issued by China, could this policy coerce Japan and the U.S. to keep out of the region? Could misunderstandings escalate into a full-scale U.S.-China military confrontation?

Whatever the case, this problem is complex, and so too are its solutions. However, when a conflict of this scale is at stake, even the smallest action can lead to a dangerous escalation.