China and the US-Japan alliance in the East China Sea Dispute


China has been rising for over three decades. So why there has not been a genuinely confrontational Sino-U.S. stand-off or a new Cold War between these two top economies? In fact, there have been several symbolic incidents between Washington and Beijing after the honeymoon period that lasted during most of the 1980s. A list of these incidents would include the Yinhe Incident in 1993, the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the Hainan Incident in the South China Sea in 2001, and the narrowly-avoided collision in the same waters earlier in 2013. Have these incidents been a series of trial attempts between the U.S. and China to test each other’s respective bottom lines before reaching a total stand-off? The truth is: both countries have stumbled through all the discord, conflicts and collisions, and probably will have to continue to slowly walk together through the years to come. For China, a direct confrontation with the dominant incumbent power through conventional approaches like military alliance-building is unwise and therefore cannot be on Beijing’s agenda.

The doubts and suspicions remain, however. Many view a rising China as a confrontation to the dominant western system, usually by referring to power transition theory’s discussion of “power parity” and the “probability of war.” However, we need to think about this theory’s emphasis on the dominant power’s privileged position to accommodate or engage the rising power. The U.S.’s strategies, tactics, policies, and skills with regard to a rising China, therefore, have long-lasting significances transcending the region of East Asia.

Take the U.S.-Japan alliance, for example. This alliance relationship has been emphasized by both Washington and Tokyo on several occasions, particularly after the eruption of maritime disputes in the East China Sea. The Americans and Japanese may be accounting for facts: the rise of China may not be reversed and China will probably overpass the U.S. economically in less than 20 years. Therefore a strengthened U.S.-Japan alliance will help to ensure the strategic balance in the region in the near future at least. This seems to be a rational choice for a relatively declining U.S. to deal with an increasingly more powerful China.

But if the US truly believes that China will maintain its rise in the foreseeable future, building mutual trust between Washington and Beijing should be at least as important and significant as maintaining a strong U.S.-Japan alliance, if not more important in the long term. Excessively limiting or compressing China’s strategic space will probably be counterproductive; it may cause or at least speed up China’s active counter-measures. In fact, China has been practicing a strategy of “reactive assertiveness” in tackling the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute, despite the fact that the U.S. and Japan have repeatedly emphasized the important role of the U.S.-Japan alliance and the U.S.’s responsibility to support Japan in a possible conflict over the disputed rocks.

For Japan, maximizing its national interest is completely rational since this is the long-existing principle for all state actors. Will Japan realize its national goals by drawing support from the U.S.-Japan alliance or find a way to break through the alliance limitations in another scenario? Or will Japan cooperate with its Asian neighbors such as China and South Korea to ensure that its national development can be built on sustained regional peace and stability? This is a fundamentally important issue for Japan. In Jean-Pierre Lehmann’s words, Japan must take the first step away from the precipice of war in East Asia.

China, of course, should also acknowledge the importance of reconciliation. In the meantime, though, China has been playing the game with more success. Beijing successfully created an overlapping administration in the disputed area after Japan’s rash move to nationalize the islands in 2012. China also announced an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, although most the responses were negative. Given the fact that China’s major neighbors all declared ADIZs decades ago, China took advantage of the opportunity to finally do the same. Beijing is playing the game by ear.

The reaffirming of the U.S.-Japan alliance with regard to the rise of China in East Asia may indicate that the U.S. is trying to avoid the mistake it made in the Middle East. When the U.S. attacked and then reconstructed Iraq, Iran somehow emerged as a strong, ambitious regional power. Of course, Iran is also a potential nuclear state and unfortunately has not been very friendly to Washington so far. Such a serious imbalance has yet to show up in East Asia. The U.S. is relying on the U.S.-Japan alliance to solidify the strategic balance in the region, where China is catching up.

However, the U.S. should be cautious when walking the line between Japan and China. There is no doubt that the U.S.-Japan alliance is a key to ensuring Washington’s strategic interests in the western Pacific. Yet alliances sometimes come with a dilemma: members need the security protection the alliance provides, but fear the limitations that come with alliance relations. How the U.S.-Japan alliance will evolve or even derail will not give China the substantial burden of counter-alliance-building, but China will take all chances to react.

This reminds me of Joseph Nye’s comment in the New York Times in January 2013: If we treat China as an enemy, we guarantee a future enemy. If we treat China as a friend, we keep open the possibility of a more peaceful future. This is also true with regard to Sino-U.S. interactions in the East China Sea dispute.

Given the current political climate in Japan and the U.S.’s regional and global strategies, there may not be much of a possibility that the U.S.-Japan alliance will be a war chariot for Japan. Before there can be significant signs of war preparation between China and Japan, the U.S. should consider a certain degree of regression for the U.S.-Japan alliance. Otherwise, the situation would run completely off the rails, which would affect not only the building of Sino-U.S. mutual trust but also U.S.-Japan relations.

January 22, 2014 at 16:51


December 31, 2013 at 05:38

The US needs to re-evaluate its US Japan alliance. The Alliance has run out of its useful life in that Japan is already a liability rather than an asset to the US, and even more so five years from now. Let’s face the fact that China is already a bigger export market for the US products than Japan and the largest international banker for the US national debt. Five to ten years from now, China and US mutual relationship will far outweigh US Japan alliance. Japan is declining in economic and military importance each year. In ten years, Japan’s GDP will rank just no 5 or 6. With the diminishing importance of Japan to the US and the increasing importance of China to the US, it is imperative for the US to get rid of its alliance relationship with Japan before it gets dragged into a war to be triggered by a rightest nationalists movement in Japan. We have no eternal friends, nor eternal foes.
We only have eternal interests. Now that interest requires that US gets rid of the Japanese liability quietely and diplomatically.

The bottom line is that the US cannot afford to make China its enemy, but can afford to leave Japan alone

Little Helmsman
December 31, 2013 at 05:06


“Many of us Westerner, are simply jealous of China achievements and are looking to block and impede it’s rise”.

How many want to LOL at this comment? We who are fortunate to live in Western democracies are many things but jealousy of a toilet bowl Communist dictatorship is not one of them!

Did China invent capitalism or the Industrial Revolution? Clearly not! In fact it was China’s arrogance and closed minded culture and conceit which made China vulnerable to Western imperialist powers in the 19th century. The rulers of China were too narrow minded to understand the revolutionizing aspect of modernity through the Industrial Revolution so China missed out on it. Japan, on the other hand, had far sighted leaders which embraced Western science, technology, knowledge, organizational skills, etc. which propel tiny Japan into a peer world leader along with the West. China only began its industrialization in 1978. It took China’s two centuries to finally admit and acknowledge the validity and logic industrialization.

China was too clueless and unimaginative as to even copied the bad ideas of the West like communism!!! LOL China cannot even invent its own bad ideas!! Without Western markets, technology transfer, managerial techniques, investments, access to Western education, credit, etc. China today would be a Maoist toilet.

People in the West do not read Chinese books, listen to Chinese music, watch Chinese movies, follow Chinese trends, etc. Chinese in the mainland know all things and follow all things Western or American! That’s just fact! Who is jealous of whom?

No citizens of a Western democracies are jealous of China’s third world dictatorship of no rights, no freedom! Anyone who suggest otherwise just sound and look silly!

Reece Linsdell
December 28, 2013 at 21:07

Iam Australian and i think william Eatons point is valid, as for you john lone, your comment was plain stupid, i spend a lot of time very close to chinas biggest naval base and I’ve been to japan a few times and have been reading into this issue on a semi frequent basis. Im not going to try say who is right or who is wrong but i will give my opinion, in terms of history japan has gotten away with disgusting things, i think china is just tired or being the victim, now china see’s themselves in a place of power they are trying to assert that dominance over japan in a non violent way and to many a rational way. I don’t think a war should occur over this but in terms of how both parties have acted in relation to this dispute over a bunch or rocks, i believe japan is in the wrong, especially after that shine visit, as i have family who suffered from the disgusting acts committed by the japanese in world war 2. Once again I’m not saying I’m right or wrong, just my opinion.

Gene S
December 28, 2013 at 22:22

Most of Australia has gotten over it. Most of the entire world has as well. China has not. How can you say that China is tired of being the victim? How has China been the “victim” of anything other than it’s own economic failures and political purges since 1949?
Japan and the west helped China get where it is today.

December 29, 2013 at 04:23

China is hardly following a peaceful approach. It is using its newly found military might to intimidate and coerce other nations into giving it what it wrongly claims is its territory. China now brags that it has obliterated the first island chain because it can send its ships through the passages between the islands and sail completely around Japan. China is now focused on “obliterating” the barrier referred to as the second island chain. It is only a matter of time before China: declares an ADIZ over the entire South China sea; before China claims Okinawa as one of their islands because the Kingdom of Ryukyu once paid tribute to China; before China claims the Philippines are their territory; before China even claims Hawaii as their territory, simply because there are people of Chinese origin living on those islands. China’s long term, 100 year plan is quite clear: conquer the South and Central Pacific island chains; something Japan attempted, but failed because they used only military force, and not Machiavellian political tactics with military intimidation to back up their claims. China truly is the evil empire, and given enough time, and enough soft responses by the international community, will attain their goal of complete hegemony over the Southern and Central Pacific ocean and islands.

December 29, 2013 at 10:52

China follows the history of the other countries who culturaly and economically excelled and of course as a consequence of its greatness or success decided also build its physical power which no doubt sooner or later will be used to intimidate the ones who are living in Chinas proximity.No different form Roman Empire,Napoleon rise or Germany with one difference.Never in the history one country with the population size of China had amased so much power.China is not afraid of Japan since China knows that US fill not get in the conlict on behalf of Japan China is also not afraid of any neighbors who are weak in comparison to the Chinese colossus.Chinese secretly worry most about Russia.Chinese population push to the north will bring them in the direct confrontation in the next 50 years with Russia.

Julius Caesar
December 29, 2013 at 19:15

How wrong you are, Cerebus!
Your comment betrayed your ignorance and bigotry!
Many of us Westerner, are simply jealous of China achievements and are looking to block and impede it’s rise.
I, on the other hand, welcome it back on the world stage as a pre-eminent nation, simply because, the world has benefitted from it’s status as the world factory.
Many of the things that I currently enjoyed, I would not have been able to afford them, if I have to pay three times or more, if they were not made in China and for this, I am Glad.
Of course, like every other nations, they should have a navy and considering the size of their nation, a big one too. I have no problem with that!

January 23, 2014 at 00:41

i agree with u cerebrus. chinese people are dangerous because of their narrow mindedness. look at how they bully the philippines and other small nations in the pacific. given enough time and they will rule the whole of asia in cruelty. united nation should prevent this from happening for the sake of peaceful co existence. china does not recognize other nation’s rights and dignity. i hope they change their mind and claim the moon or mars instead.

December 28, 2013 at 15:26

China and USA were friends to fight Japanese fascist
china never fight USA at first hand in Korea and Vietnam wars just helping friend in need
Japan lost the WWII was by USA atomic bombs and once will revenge the American when strong again
Japanese economic becomes strong in 1980 because
American back up their security (no arms expenses)
but now Japan want to strengthen their arm forces
because they realize American is becoming weak and remember who is no.1 enemy for Japan is America not China and who is no.1 enemy of china and Korea is Japan so if China,Korea and American can be united then japan will be a good boy and will not show of force when they were in WWII
China has no ambition to be imperialist, proved in Ming dynasty when their navy were the strongest in the world but they did not colonized the countries like westerners

Gene S
December 28, 2013 at 22:14

The China that was a US ally in WWII is the Republic of China, lead by Chiang Kai Shek. The Communists, under Mao Tse Tung ousted him to Taiwan and took over Mainland China in 1949. Please do not mislead Americans on this crucial point. Today’s China is Red China who sent troops to the Korean War to kill Americans and other UN soldiers.

December 28, 2013 at 13:36

I read a few months ago and i will need to look it up again but there was a claim made that horses came to north america by chinese explorers, how long before china claims the west coast as being part of their territory, far fetched i know

December 28, 2013 at 11:27

Unfortunately, China is following the Nazi play book of professing peace, while making increasing demands for territory. In this case the territory is the East China Sea and islands, the South China sea and islands, and various mountainous areas of India. If the world does not oppose and condemn China’s aggression, then the end result will be a major regional war, at the very least. The world should not make the same mistake that Chamberlain made; appeasement will NOT lead to peace in our time.

December 28, 2013 at 23:17

How do you explain that China has reached border agreements with most of its land neighboring countries except India? China and India have territorial disputes over much much larger piece of land and yet do not have as tense relations between them. China’s position is very basic: in terms of territorial disputes, China is fine if the other party recognizes the existence of dispute and engages to negotiate, even if for decades; China will never hesitate to take a hard line position if the other party simply denies the existence of such a dispute and acts unilaterally in such a mentality.

December 29, 2013 at 04:01

China claims the bulk of the East China sea and the bulk of the South China sea; even areas extending 800 miles from the coast. They claim the islands in those areas even though those islands are more that 200 miles from their coast. China is an aggressor nation. They have not settled their border disputes with other countries. China is an outlaw nation that is attempting to take international seas by military intimidation and lay claim to hose sea areas. There can be no negotiation with an outlaw state like China. The only thing an outlaw state like China recognizes is superior force to contain them and force them to behave like good international neighbors. There is no dispute over many islands; those islands are located in the EEZ of their respective countries. China has no legal claim to them and should admit its wrong thinking and admit its even more incorrect actions.

December 28, 2013 at 08:45


Why do you think that China has to forgo its legitimate need for a powerful navy just to maintain the psychological health of its smaller neighbors? Too bad for them but China does need a powerful navy (look at where China gets its energy, and the fact that it is a huge global trader), and the more the US and its allies isolate China, te quicker that naval development progresses. China finally has the means to develop a navy, and a space capability to boot, and no one can stop it, or have the right to deprive it.

Your argument that the “ball” is in China’s court reeks of typical Western arrogance. Why don’t you go tell the Japanese that their “self-Defense” force has grown far beyond anything needed for Japan’s “self-defense”? Better yet, why not ask why the US is at China’s doorsteps in the first place? I don’t hear of Chinese naval vessels cruising along the coast of New Jersey or California.

Reality 33
December 28, 2013 at 08:45

ball is a court of communists? Sure . I hope China take over the world.

December 28, 2013 at 08:19

well china already buys a major percentage of our coal here in australia, so for them to tell australia to watch what we say is ridiculous, we can effect china alot more then they think, by cutting their power supplies, stop importing their peice of shit cars, and stop their expansion in our real estates. easy, thats how australia itself can make a massive impact on china.

William Eaton
December 28, 2013 at 04:03

The situation is really much simpler and the ball is in China’s court, not Japan’s.

China has to make a choice. Do they wish to be a maritime power? As long as China decided to remain a great land power and used all their defense spending on their army everything would be ok, because the U.S., Japan, and other players in the region would feel less threatened. Big armies cannot magically jump over bodies of water. A big advanced navy however is a major threat to island nations like Japan, and a threat to American dominance at sea and our traditional values of freedom of the seas.

Obsessing over who is going to have the biggest economy five or ten years out is irrelevant, because differences would be small, and any advantages by the economic leader would be offset by either internal problems and geographic location. For example, if China surpasses the U.S. it will not be enough to make up for internal problems in China and the fact that China is surrounded by major military powers like Russia, India, Japan, etc, unlike the U.S. which is surrounded by Mexico and Canada. This matters because it allows the U.S. to project more military force in one area, like Asia, whereas China is forced to spread out their military power in multiple areas along its huge borders.

This gets us back to China and its naval ambitions. If China decides to be a major naval power, it will have to spend a lot of money against multiple nations. This in turn will frighten those nations in thinking that China intends to use their navy against them, not just a military threat against them, but as an economic weapon as well. They will in turn increase their naval power, etc., and the cycle will continue until China stops, is limited by another power, or there is war.

So why does the same thing not happen to the U.S.? Does the U.S. not have a powerful navy? Well the difference is the world is now comfortable with the U.S. Navy. They understand what America will do and what it will not do. China on the other hand is a mystery. They claim they want freedom of the seas and peace in Asia, yet claim the entire the South China Sea as their national waters. They say they have the right to refuse any nation the right to travel through the South China Sea. They make bizarre claims on pointless rocks owned by other countries based on possible ancient Chinese ownership. There are other claims as well. None of this sounds good or promising if you are Japan, the Philippines, India or the U.S. They will ask themselves all sorts of questions. When will China be satisfied? Will they make more claims? If you give in on these claims, will that just fuel expansionist in China to demand more?

You see it is the unknown that is so frightening to so many in Asia. As long as China continues to keep the mystery going of their true intentions (which they might not even know at this point) and continues to build a big navy, the combination of which is naturally going to create a more destabilized Asia no matter what U.S. policy in Asia is. The best the U.S. can do is maybe prevent the entire situation from devolving into a major Asian war, by keeping engaged militarily in Asia and provide real limits to Chinese naval expansion. If that limit is removed it will mean chaos and war.

So the future of Asia is in China’s hands, do they want peaceful coexistence with the neighbors, or the prestige of being a major naval power.

John Lone
December 28, 2013 at 05:02

China wants a total world domination and anything less will not be satisfied. Chinese greed is insatiable I would not be surprise if the chinese lay claims Australia and Russian Siberia are parts of chinese history according some makeup ancient times within a decade or two.

December 28, 2013 at 16:37

Han Chinese has dreamed of being the world hegemony since 2.000 years ago.However, due to their inward-looking mentality and they were over proud of themselves when they declared that China is the Center of Universe.That’s why sometimes the West uses the word Middle Kingdom to mean China.However, this word is not the meaning Han Chinese meaned but what they meaned is China is Center of all the Best on earth and they are superior too all races on earth.Therefore, they never accept other races’ idea or thinking.
The dream of the World hegemony is now known as China Dream which has been repeatedly declared by any new dynasty or regime and most recently Xi has declared.But most people around the world might have misunderstood Xi’s declaration when they think China Dream means the Properity,Happiness for China populace.

Albert Spencer
December 28, 2013 at 20:08

This is absurdity in the making.
The Chinese has every right like the others to have a strong navy.
USA has more than 12 aircraft carriers and more are being built. Yet when the Chin started with one, we hear all these bulls about the threat.
In an attempt to preserve our power, we westerners are denying others to have the same.
As one of our pre-eminent stateman says, the best defense is to built up a strong offense.
Libya, Iraq and Syria fail in this sense and were subject to massive foreign interfering and intervention.
Iran got the message and built up a strong enough military to deter others. Like wise NK has taken up the nuclear option as a deterrence to others.

December 28, 2013 at 09:53

china would be so dumb to not develop a strong naval force. a world class chinese navy helps china to keep the policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons. a no brainer for world peace and lasting humanity.

December 29, 2013 at 11:59

William, all what you said is based on fear, a fear of China having bad intention of expanding its territorial claims. The assumption is that the US can be trusted with its huge naval strength, not China. This is a prejudice that you and the west frequently adopt. The west, led by the US has always, for a long time since the cold war is largely distrustful of communism, and thus mostly adopting an antagonistic, mostly negative, attitude toward China’s rise. China has the same right as the US of developing its navy for defense. Many are trying to tie the naval development to the disputes in East China sea and South China sea. This is not right because the disputes existed long before China was any threat to its neighbors. It was since the US pivot to Asia that many countries, including Japan, took the chance to resurrect the disputes and challenged China on those “long dormant” disputes. Another reason is the promulgation of the laws of the sea in 1982, delimiting 200 miles EEZ. It was clearly the expansion of the control of the sea that had led Japan, Philippines, Vietnam etc to be more aggressive on the existing conflicts with China. It is fair to say all the countries have the same intention of dividing the oceans and their resources. This is a conflict over resources, not navies.

By the way, if you are surrounded like China by a containment, how do you react? China will be “forced” to strengthen its naval presence, and the US is, to a certain extent, responsible for heightening the tension in this part of the world.

December 30, 2013 at 06:24

I understand perfect what you mean.

The Chinese have a place and they belong to a that place. They are allowed to roam within that place but they must be put within their place.

I think the Chinese people simply do not and will not agree with this arrangement.

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