Practically all of the scores of articles that have been published since China announced its new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) have focused on China’s moves and on how the United States and its allies – Japan in particular – have responded and should respond. Analysts have examined China’s motives, seeking to determine whether the ADIZ is defensive, meant to protect China’s sovereignty and security; offensive, meant to prepare for a land grab; a reaction meant to indicate displeasure with Japan’s recent threat to shoot down unmanned aircraft in Japanese airspace; or meant to test U.S. resolve now that it has come to be viewed as having allowed other nations to cross one red line after another. Analysts of the U.S. response have noted signs of weakness in Washington’s instructions that civilian airlines should abide by China’s new rules, and they fear that accidental clashes between U.S. military planes engaged in overflights and the Chinese fighters that shadow them may lead to a shoot-out. Still other articles examined the side effects of China’s ADIZ on Japan, which was moving away from its pacifist orientation even before this recent development.
All of these rightful concerns deal with the immediate situation. The time has now come to also explore how to address the underlying conflict on two levels: that of the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and that of China’s rising power and regional role. Unless this is done, the U.S. is limiting itself to dealing with symptoms while ignoring the underlying lingering tensions.
I take it for granted that the U.S. and its allies cannot simply acquiesce and allow China to unilaterally change the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and their surrounding waters. True, declaring an ADIZ is a limited step, but it is fairly viewed as part of the “salami tactics” that – if permitted to continue – would likely lead to Chinese control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the nearby waters and resources. However, it is not enough to counter China’s most recent maneuver, only to return to the status quo ante of unsettled conflict over the status of the islands and their surrounding seas.
Several suggestions have been made as to what might next be done. Some hold that dispute could be submitted to a review by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or the International Court of Justice. Such a review has been suggested by Professor Jerome Cohen, an internationally renowned China law scholar at New York University. The review is likely to take several years and, during that time, all parties involved would have strong incentives to engage in serious negotiations before a decision is reached.
Another approach calls for a joint administration of resources in and around the islands could be established and the issue of sovereignty shelved. In effect, informal proposals in the 1970s for the joint development of oil and gas resources in the disputed areas were made by Japanese and Chinese officials in the past, but never implemented. An agreement between China and Japan to jointly develop gas fields in the East China Sea was signed in 2008, but has yet to be carried out. Alternatively, sovereignty over the territory could be awarded to one state, but resource-related rights could be assigned to all claimants. Both of these recommendations have been put forward by the Carter Center.
Still others have suggested that the two states could consider the formation of a supranational organization that would be authorized to exploit and manage resources in the disputed areas. Japan and China’s conflicting claims to territorial sovereignty would be effectively overridden by a supranational governing body similar to the European Coal and Steel Community – an idea advanced by former Japanese ambassador to Iran and Iraq, Magosaki Ukeru.
Arguably even more important is the resolution of other such remaining territorial disputes, especially the one concerning the Philippines. I write “remaining” because many such conflicts have already been worked out with China, a point that is often overlooked by a media that focuses on the drama of confrontation rather than on low-key, slow, grinding conflict resolution processes. As M. Taylor Fravel points out, “Since 1949, China has settled seventeen of its twenty-three territorial disputes. Moreover, it has offered substantial compromises in most of these settlements, usually receiving less than 50 percent of the contested land.” More recently, China and India signed the Border Defense Cooperation Agreement on October 23, as a significant step toward resolving their territorial differences.
China’s dispute with the Philippines is particularly important to settle for two reasons. First, while the U.S. commitment to Japan, the contested islands included, is enshrined in a treaty and widely recognized, its commitment to defending the Philippines is much less clearly delineated. Second, the Philippines has made its own provocative moves – for instance when, as part of its ongoing dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal, it detained eight Chinese fishing vessels in the surrounding waters in April 2012. Hence, the risk that misunderstandings will occur between China and the Philippines and that the U.S. will become involved in a conflict it does not seek – or that the Philippines will find itself unexpectedly unsupported in such a conflict – is particularly high.
Beyond the specific disputes lies a more general question that the U.S. has not yet adequately addressed. What is the U.S. position toward China’s rising power? Will the U.S. go so far as to allow China its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, as some have suggested? Or will it allow China to expand as long as this expansion is limited to economic and cultural means but does not involve use of force? Follow a new strategy of mutually assured restraint? Or, will the U.S. insist on opposing any and all changes to the status quo – including existing rules governing maritime navigation, territorial claims, and so forth? In other words, will it follow the course taken by many other established powers that did not yield a quarter to rising powers and fell into what is has been called the Thucydides Trap, leading to a new world war?
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.