CNA Maritime Asia Project: Workshop One: The Yellow and East China Seas
Because security concerns in East Asia have increasingly revolved around problems in the maritime domain, the Center for Naval Analyses has elected to make maritime security in East Asia the focal point for a series of workshops that will explore these issues in depth.
In recent months, the South China Sea has been the most discussed East Asian maritime security issue. Still, a credible case can be made that the co-terminus Yellow and East China seas have all the ingredients necessary to become another maritime center of competition in East Asia. In fact, this maritime basin, because of the cross-strait issue, did fulfill that role during much of the post-Cold War era.
Beijing, Tokyo, and Seoul all have important disputes over sovereignty and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in these waters. Disputes over seabed resources and fishing occur frequently. The East China Sea/Yellow Sea basin is essentially home waters for the navies of China, Japan, and both Koreas. As a result, it is a “local” training area for four—or, if one includes Taiwan, five—littoral navies. These are waters where all routinely operate, and, in the case of the two Koreas, periodically engage in combat. Over the last 13 years, six combat clashes have occurred in the Yellow Sea (or West Sea, as the Koreans would have it) over the disputed maritime boundary between the two Korean states.
These waters are of enormous economic import for China and Korea. Commercial traffic must traverse the East China Sea and/or Yellow Sea to reach Korea’s major ports and six of China’s 10 largest ports. Approximately 70 percent of China’s eastern seaboard forms the western limit of the East China Sea/Yellow Sea basin, while the Ryukyu Chain is the East China Sea’s eastern boundary. Thus, understandably, these bodies of water are of great strategic significance to China, Korea, and Japan.
Taiwan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are at the southern end of the East China Sea. This fact alone imbues these waters with very important strategic significance. These are the two areas in East Asia where important Chinese interests and America’s security obligations to Taiwan and Japan overlap. As a result, they are potential flashpoints that could lead to conflict between Washington and Beijing.
Happily, the prospect of a China-Taiwan confrontation is currently considered remote. Relations between Taipei and Beijing are at an all-time high. The same cannot be said for Japan and China and the dispute over sovereignty of the Senkakus/Diaoyus. The public statements of both sides suggest no room for compromise, and Tokyo’s ongoing initiative to formally purchase the islands from a long time Japanese leaseholder has raised China’s ire. So far Beijing and Tokyo have successfully kept this dispute confined to diplomatic and constabulary arenas, but the United States cannot dismiss this as a minor dispute that it wishes to avoid. The United States considers the Senkakus to be under Japanese administrative control, so the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty does apply in case of a Chinese use of force.
Finally, the East China and Yellow seas served for several decades as the maritime buffer between “Red China” and Washington’s offshore allies of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. While U.S. strategic thinking no longer revolves around notions of containing Asian continental powers, China understands that historically these waters were the routes that the West crossed to attack China. Beijing considers them its “near seas,” and has embarked upon a military program to ensure that it can establish sea control over these “first island chain” maritime basins.