How to Prevent Accidental Conflict in the East China Sea

Dec 12, 2013

The clock starts ticking for the next crisis. With China’s announcement of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea and the strong response from Japan, the United States and several other countries, tensions in East Asia are mounting.

Since the crisis over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in September 2012, both China and Japan have begun to conduct frequent air and marine patrols in the Diaoyu/Senkakus area. With the flyby of the American B-52s, the area around these tiny islands has become a zone of tension with high probability of an accident and subsequent conflict. Just like the EP-3 collision incident between the US and China in 2001, if states continue to play this game of chicken, then an accident is inevitable.

As anyone who studies East Asian international relations knows, a small accident between China and Japan could immediately escalate into a major crisis and even military conflict. Historical memory plays a powerful role in the security of East Asia, more than any other region.

The current situation is indeed dangerous. Scholars who study Sino-Japanese relations have used historical analogies to warn against major conflict. For example, some compare the situation in Europe in 1914 to the current situation between China and Japan. Even though no state wanted to fight in 1914, war still came about partly by accident and miscommunication. Some scholars have begun to call the current situation another “Thucydidean trap.” Under this line of  thinking, the Peloponnesian War was inevitable because of the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused Sparta. The real source of conflict between China and Japan is not just the tiny islands in the East China Sea, but also the fear that honor is at stake. For this bilateral relationship, victimhood and historical memory are not just psychological issues or concepts related only to perceptions and attitudes as they are in some other relationships. They are key elements in constructing national identity and influencing foreign policy decision making.

China and Japan are the world’s second and third largest economies, meaning any conflict would have disastrous global consequences. Moreover, this bilateral relationship is not truly bilateral. Any conflict between these two countries automatically pulls in the United States. With such a gloomy outlook, it is the time that the governments of the three countries seriously consider how to prevent and to manage crisis and conflict.

A proposal I have is to demarcate the air and waters around the Diaoyu/Senkakus as a “zone of peace.” China and Japan could agree not to send any official or military aircraft, vessels, and personnel into this zone for an agreed upon period of time, such as two years, as a means to avoid accidental incidents and conflict. The zone’s size could be decided upon by these countries, perhaps 12 nautical miles surrounding each of the small islands. This zone of peace would only be a temporary arrangement; it would not nullify the territorial claims that each side has maintained.

A zone of peace has been used as a tool for conflict management in many deep-rooted conflicts, from international to ethnic conflicts as well as between communities. As with any peace proposal, difficulties and challenges must be overcome. Given that the tension has already developed into something symbolic, it is highly probable that both governments would consider accepting such a proposal as a withdrawal from their current positions, leading to domestic opposition. With rising nationalism in China and Japan, the governments have little flexibility in their handling of the bilateral relationship. There are also particular obstacles for both sides.  As the Japanese government believes that the islands are administered by Japan, this may lead them to consider the acceptance of this proposal as equivalent to relinquishing administrative power. In Beijing, the government may worry that the acceptance of a new zone of peace would in essence negate the ADIZ that they just announced.

To overcome this, Chinese and Japanese leaders first need to demonstrate their vision, courage, and determination to make peace. The establishment of the zone of peace is a crisis prevention tactic. It will not change any legal claims or the status of the territorial claims. If they want to avoid conflict, especially one arising from a small incident, they should take measures to decrease the likelihood of such accidents through using tools such as the zone of peace. Responses sparked by the risk to honor and face are not the work of rational actors. Next, the United States has to be brought in to play a critical role in the deal-making. The domestic difficulties in China and Japan make it unrealistic to expect either country to initiate the negotiation process with the other. Another party needs to take the first step to promote the zone proposal. Even though the United States is not a neutral third party, it can still adopt the role of facilitator. And this would be in the interests of the United States.

The risk of an escalated crisis and the recognition of unbearable consequences make it essential that all of the involved parties act immediately. The best war is the one being prevented. And the most foolish conflict is the one generated by accident.

This article first appeared in The Diplomat.

Experts & Staff