In the past few months, China and Japan have appeared to come close to blows over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Yet an outbreak of fighting is unlikely. War would run counter to Beijing's two most fundamental national interests: promoting stability in Asia to foster China's economic growth, and preventing the escalation of radical nationalist sentiment at home. So don't expect China to unsheathe its sword any time soon.
In official statements, the United States claims to be a neutral observer in disputes over islands in the South and East China Seas. In fact, major U.S. energy firms have already partnered with Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Philippine state-owned oil companies to develop promising reserves in maritime territories claimed by those countries as well as China -- and the United States appears intent on protecting those projects and other interests in the region with military might.
The USS Gridley pulls alongside a sealift command dry cargo ship in the South China Sea. (DVIDSHUB / flickr)
In recent years, China became increasingly ready to assert and defend its territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, where six other nations have competing claims. Beijing publicly challenged the legality of foreign oil companies' investments in Vietnam's offshore energy industry, emphasized its own rights over islands and waters far from the Chinese mainland, detained hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen near the Chinese-held Paracel Islands, and harassed Vietnamese and Philippine vessels conducting seismic surveys in waters that Beijing claims. Many East Asian countries saw China's behavior as a sign of the country's new willingness to adopt a more unilateral and confrontational posture in the region.
Little noticed, however, has been China's recent adoption of a new -- and much more moderate -- approach. The primary goals of the friendlier policy are to restore China's tarnished image in East Asia and to reduce the rationale for a more active U.S. role there.
The first sign of China's new approach came last June, when Hanoi dispatched a special envoy to Beijing for talks about the countries' various maritime disputes. The visit paved the way for an agreement in July 2011 between China and the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to finally implement a declaration of a code of conduct they had originally drafted in 2002 after a series of incidents in the South China Sea. In that declaration, they agreed to "exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes."
Since the summer, senior Chinese officials, especially top political leaders such as President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, have repeatedly reaffirmed the late Deng Xiaoping's guidelines for dealing with China's maritime conflicts to focus on economic cooperation while delaying the final resolution of the underlying claims. In August 2011, for example, Hu echoed Deng's approach by stating that "the countries concerned may put aside the disputes and actively explore forms of common development in the relevant sea areas."