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Dispute in the East China Sea

A vessel sails around a group of disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China in the East China Sea
A Japanese aircraft circles a group of disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China in the East China Sea

“By enabling whichever country has sovereignty over the Senkakus to claim exclusive rights over resources hundreds of miles offshore, the law of the sea has inflamed the dispute by vesting otherwise worthless islands with immense economic value.”

— Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky, University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, Summer 2008 

2.1 The Issue

Tensions between China and Japan have erupted in the East China Sea over the five small, uninhabited islands the Japanese refer to as the Senkaku and the Chinese call the Diaoyu. The islands have been the subject of competing sovereignty claims by China, Japan, and Taiwan for decades. For the past several years, Chinese and Japanese naval and air forces have come in frequent contact as Beijing and Tokyo have sought to demonstrate control over the islands. Given that their militaries are increasingly in contact in the waters of the East China Sea and the airspace above it, the risk of a miscalculation or accident has increased, raising concerns that the sovereignty dispute could lead to an armed clash between Asia’s two largest powers.  

Although the United Nations has long had a policy of neutrality on the islands’ sovereignty, it holds a strong interest in maintaining stability among the multiple invested powers. A conflict involving China, Japan, and the United States—which is treaty-bound to defend Japan in the event of an attack—has the potential to affect global stability stability, economic growth, and the security of those in the region, as well as hinder cooperation on issues such as nuclear nonproliferation and climate change mitigation. The UN Security Council has frequently considered similar maritime territorial disputes, seeking to uphold international maritime agreements such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As the situation in the East China Sea remains a potential flashpoint for conflict in the region, the UN Security Council could play a crucial role in maintaining stability. Yet a UN decision in this case could be difficult to achieve. China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the council, has the ability to block many actions that have proven effective in past disputes. The Security Council’s relationship with other organs of the United Nations, such as the International Court of Justice, and independent bodies, such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration, offers potential pathways, although they could lack enforceability. 

Decision Point

UN Security Council Meeting

Chinese and Japanese aircraft have exchanged fire over the East China Sea. At least one aircraft seems to have been disabled. The incident took place in China’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ); China established its ADIZ in 2013, demanding that all aircraft give notice before entering it. Japan also has an ADIZ, and both of these zones include the disputed islands. Japan does not recognize China’s ADIZ and continues to send civilian and military aircraft into the East China Sea airspace, claiming to be doing so legitimately under international law. In response to the exchange of fire, China and Japan have each begun preparations for a search-and-rescue mission and are sending additional naval vessels to the area in which the aircraft were last observed. The UN Security Council is convening to discuss, and take possible action on, the dispute between China and Japan in the East China Sea, including both the immediate situation and the broader issue of the two sides’ competing claims.  

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