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 China and Japan 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, 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.