How to Prevent Accidental Conflict in the East China Sea
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

How to Prevent Accidental Conflict in the East China Sea


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.

Zheng Wang is an Associate Professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, USA, and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of  ”Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations.”

Lauren Garza
December 12, 2013 at 03:38

Setting up a ‘Zone of Peace’ automatically supposes that China has some sort of claim to the island.

December 12, 2013 at 00:46

It’s easy to be peaceful when your st the bottom of the barrel

Uros Nislija
December 11, 2013 at 08:39

Serbian people support socialist friends in China, always have and always will! My message to Chinease people therefor is: Do not negotiate with Japs, just distroy them! Get even comarades from DPRK to help, they already have Taepodongs aimed at Tokyo and Seul anyway, so this is a great opportunity to test them before they use them on Hawaii, LA and San Francisco! :D

December 11, 2013 at 04:54

that’s because, as far as the rest of the the world is now concerned, what you see as “resistance” IS agression. Or will you choose to ingnore that Japan actually has made apologies and invested billions in Chinese infrastructure and economics over the past forty years or so?

oh, and i might add that just because the U.S, Japan et al. rose through violence against others is no excuse, nor an alibi for the PRC to attempt the same thing. Two wrongs do not make a right, and that you attempt to argue such makes reveals the depth of your delusion and hypocrisy.

December 10, 2013 at 21:31

Its too late now. For the last 10 years, China begged Japan to sit down and negotiate but Japan refused. Now that China has gained the upper hand, Japan can only resort to aggressive militarization to maintain their claims. We note, it was Japan who are demanded they would start shooting down Chinese aircraft in Sept 2013. Is that a peaceful Japan you are trying to portray?

December 10, 2013 at 20:47

How to prepare for peace – by preparing for peace. Is that what history teaches? Doesn’t history teach us that if you want peace, you should prepare for war? Shouldn’t the US cancel the New Start treaty and gear up for nuclear war with China?

December 10, 2013 at 23:46

It is well known secret in the diplomat community that “pivoting to Asia” is the operational code name for a new cold war against China, by definition nuclear war is the pillar of cold war. You are two years late, “pivot to Asia” was declared two years ago.

December 10, 2013 at 12:34

That’s the game of chicken. Who flinches first? The first to concede an olive branch is the chicken. China created a situation it can’t get out of. The author seems to have forgotten China made the first move in declaring the adiz.

December 10, 2013 at 08:22

I’m not convinced that something like the author’s proposal of a DMZ-plus would be agreeable to either side.

The Japanese position is preservation of the status quo, which is Japanese de facto administration of the islands. Creation of the ‘peace zone’ (gosh I hate that name) represents a step backwards, so to speak, from the viewpoint of Tokyo.

The Chinese position is open for debate (and I’m aware that Facebook is hardly the most intelligent forum for it). But assuming it’s revisionist broadly defined, I’m having trouble seeing how a complete 180 degree abandonment of its current strategy of incremental increases in physical presence would support Beijing’s goals.

December 11, 2013 at 09:18

The irony here is that Governor Ishihara of Tokyo wanted to buy the 3 x Senkaku Islands from the Japanese private owner and turn them into a World Heritage Reserve, no mining exploration, no military, no settlement, no fishing, close to status of a ‘peace reserve’. Then Japan decided to nationalise the islands instead.

Parabolic Po
December 10, 2013 at 07:37

Any article with China brings out the “A-Team” of professional nationalistic commenters. Hilarious. I think some of these countries, which will remain unnamed, have perfected AI…NO, not artificial intelligence, but automated idiots. The seeseeTV robots and somebody’s dream lemmings who are products of the national curriculum and the onslaught of ongoing victom mentalities as portrayed on the boobtube. Little man syndrome in a nationalist package…that, friends and foes alike, is what is driving this territorial dispute down the slippery slope. I possess an insider perspective and am a senior fellow at a think tank…plus I’ve written many papers.

December 22, 2013 at 18:47

Well..from your comment I doubt your claims of writing papers, but your claims of cleaning McDonald Loo is unquestioned.

What the author is trying to ask is some disengagement period for cooling off tempers. Which is a must now. No one wants a war and to cool each other’s public perceptions, a disengagement period is the optimum solution.

December 10, 2013 at 05:03

It was very peaceful indeed up until the mid 2008, when China started sending armed fishing boats to the area. The Ocean needs good law enforcement for the prevention of drug and human trafficking, and the preservation of the natural resources. And that is Japan’s job not China’s. China should stay in the mainland and prioritize to stop spreading its pollutions.

Please stop the Fukushima nucelar leakage
December 10, 2013 at 05:32

Japan cannot be trusted with any international responsibility, because they are fabricating data to cover up 300 tons of nuclear radiative polluted water are being leaked from Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean daily. Those toxic nuclear radioactive seawater is polluting coasts and marine lives along the western coasts of Canada and the USA.

Japanese is murdering endangered species whales in the industrial scale just for the purpose of getting government subsidizes, meanwhile Japanese do not eat the hunted whales and just dump the whales in the sea.

The World should stop the irresponsible Japanese destroying the world environment and save the whales.

December 11, 2013 at 09:28

China PRC is doing ten-fold the pollution and environmental harm that Japan is. Look at the PRC’s record: no safe drinking water, polluted rivers, atrocious air pollution, regular swine and avian influenza scares, the list goes on.

December 10, 2013 at 04:09

All that Japan need to do is just to return the stolen war loot, Diaoyu Islands, back to China. Plain and simple. Peace at last. The rest of other semantic words like vision, courage and determination to create a peace zone is irrelevant and wasteful.

New bottle old wine
December 10, 2013 at 02:10

The proposal in the article is a repackage of Treaty of Versailles, the trick used by the imperialist powers to impose unequal treaties on China in the name of majority decision disregarding the morality and justice. The author is selling a setup like in Versailles that guarantees whatever the USA and Japan decides will prevail over China in a two against one decision.

The source of the proposal in the article is rather shocking; perhaps a lot of Chinese cooperating with Japanese occupation force during the WWII processed with similar mentality, they thought they were providing solutions, national integrity, morality and justice are irrelevant.

The author’s proposal is another attempt to gloss over Japanese aggression encouraged by the USA’s hegemony intent to encircle China in a new cold war against China. It is worthwhile to iterate that it was the Japanese who started the hostility over Daioyu/Sankaku islands, and it is the Japanese who refuses to recognize the dispute and refuses to negotiate a peaceful solution.

December 10, 2013 at 11:23

…or you could put the shoe on the other foot and realize that, from the perspective of the U.S, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, et al, the PRC looks more and more like a somewhat less militarist version of Imperial Germany, complete with the irredentism, internal political strife, and the desire to solve both via territorial aggression on a scale not seen since World War Two, in lieu of the Chinese Communist Party fulfilling its end of the social contract. Then again, the CCP has explicitly made “territorial reclamation”–read: the resurrection of regional Chinese hegemony–part of said social contract.

So, no, a peace zone won’t work explicitly because said peace zone, and settling for half of the East China Sea is not what the CCP and the PLA set out to accomplish; the ultimate goals are what could be called the four Rs; Rend the U.S-Japan alliance that has held the horizontal international relations order in check; “reclaim” what never belonged to China in the first place; revenge upon Japan and any others who sullied the notion of Chinese supremacy in a formerly vertical sino-centric world order; finally, retain political power for the CCP.

Resistance is Aggression
December 11, 2013 at 00:14

Your twisted defense for the aggressions of Japan, USA, the Philippines, Vietnam, India, etc. is nothing out of ordinary, it is their usual line, “your resistance is aggression,” otherwise they would have to admit their war crimes by bombing and killing millions of innocents on the fabricated WMD since WWII.

USA, the West and Japan rose thru violence, atrocity and cruelty, but please do not portray others will follow USA, the West and Japan’s ugly past to white wash their unrepented crimes against humanity. You should know there is something called humanity; a lot of other people in the world treasure it.

December 11, 2013 at 04:55

@ “Resistance is Aggression”

that’s because, as far as the rest of the the world is now concerned, what you see as “resistance” IS agression. Or will you choose to ingnore that Japan actually has made apologies and invested billions in Chinese infrastructure and economics over the past forty years or so?

oh, and i might add that just because the U.S, Japan et al. rose through violence against others is no excuse, nor an alibi for the PRC to attempt the same thing. Two wrongs do not make a right, and that you attempt to argue such makes reveals the depth of your delusion and hypocrisy.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief