China’s influence in East Asian security has grown with its economic rise. However, in order to resolve maritime territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, China will have to work constructively alongside regional powers to find mutually beneficial multilateral solutions. 

In a panel moderated by Hannah Beech of Time Magazine, Li Jianwei of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Ian Storey of the Institute on Southeast Asian Studies, Carnegie’s Michael D. Swaine, and Zhu Chenghu of China’s National Defense University discussed China’s role in East Asia regional security.

Impact of China’s Rise on Regional Security

Panelists noted that the United States and major East Asian powers, such as Japan, often have difficulty accepting China’s role as a major security power in the Asia Pacific region. 

  • Regional Tensions: All the panelists agreed that there are a multitude of tensions between countries in the Asia Pacific. The longstanding territorial and historical tensions between China and Japan are well known, but tensions between Japan and South Korea and among Southeast Asian countries also persist. Another pointed out that the U.S. rebalancing toward Asia has been perceived by some within China as an attempt to contain China, adding to the regional tensions. 
  • China’s “Assertive” Foreign Policy: Several panelists pointed out that Western countries have not been the only ones to describe Chinese foreign policy as “assertive”—Vietnam and the Philippines have also claimed this, and have had a number of skirmishes with China in recent months involving disagreements over land and maritime territorial sovereignty. Another panelist reminded that these problems are partly a matter of perspective—China’s renewed preeminence in the region is relatively recent, and it will take time for the region to adapt. 
  • Role of the United States: Panelists discussed how strong U.S. commercial and political interests in the Asia-Pacific region have motivated the Obama administration to re-focus its diplomatic and economic policy agendas there. Indeed, one panelist explained that the United States still needs to be more active in creating a new cooperative framework to help deter any destabilizing behavior among regional powers. 

Establishment of China’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) 

China announced the establishment of its East China Sea ADIZ in late November 2013, to the surprise of other regional powers. The ADIZ covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and has increased the probability of conflict in the region. 

  • ADIZ Timing: Several participants asserted that criticism of China’s actions in regard to the ADIZ should focus on the timing and definition of China’s announcement. They argued that the Chinese had given advanced notification to South Korea, but not to Japan or the United States. The lack of notification led to an increase of tensions in the region. They added that China’s requirements and plans for enforcing the zone have not been made clear. Another panelist responded that other countries have not notified China prior to creating their own air defense identification zones. ​​
  •  Motivations for Establishing the ADIZ: One participant suggested that by establishing the ADIZ, China has signaled its desire to resolve tensions deriving from territorial issues with its neighbors, while others asserted that it was needlessly provocative. A panelist explained that the creation of the ADIZ was intended to increase communication between parties in the region, and that the negotiation of an air code of conduct would be a great success for the zone.
  • Legitimacy of the ADIZ: Most panelists confirmed that although there was no legal grounding for China’s creation of an ADIZ, other countries have established similar zones in the past. Another panelist explained that creating an ADIZ was the right of any sovereign state. However, this particular ADIZ is more problematic because it includes international airspace and overlaps with Japan’s ADIZ over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. 

Continuing Tensions in the South China Sea

The tensions in the South China Sea have recently escalated due to a number of factors, including rising nationalism in China, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Addressing and managing these competing claims for territory and exclusive economic zones is essential to easing regional tensions and decreasing the potential for conflict. 

  • An Increasingly Militarized Conflict: Panelists explained that the growing competition over maritime resources has become increasingly militarized in Asia, citing China’s rapidly modernizing navy as an example. However, the increasing presence of the U.S. Navy in Asia has further complicated the disputes and tensions. 
  • Need for Bilateral Compromises: Panelists agreed that multilateral talks being pursued by China and ASEAN over the last few years have produced few results. Most panelists believed that joint development in the region is unrealistic, and that bilateral agreements would be easier to reach than multilateral ones. One scholar suggested that countries should start by forming bilateral agreements on fishing rights in areas of overlapping claims, given the importance of the region as a source of food. 
  • Complete Resolution of Territorial Conflicts Unlikely: The panelists agreed that completely resolving the territorial conflicts in the South China Sea was unlikely. Instead, the focus should be on conflict management and crisis prevention mechanisms. They explained that without these steps, an accidental clash in the region could quickly escalate into a large-scale crisis.