Illustration: Craig Stephens
Mark J. Valencia
Mark J. Valencia

Why US criticism of China’s actions in the East China Sea smacks of hypocrisy

  • The US says its freedom of navigation operations are demonstrations of its refusal to accept other states’ maritime claims
  • Yet, when China insists it does not accept Japan’s claims to the Diaoyus, it is accused of trying to change the status quo
At their January summit, US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reiterated their resolve to thwart China’s “attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea”.

Coming from the United States, this statement is disingenuous: changing the status quo is precisely what the US is doing in the South China Sea. This also begs the questions: what is, or was, the status quo, who gets to define it, and who has tried to change it?

Japan presently administers the rocks it calls the Senkaku Islands. But they are also actively claimed as the Diaoyu Islands by China, which has in recent years increased deployment of coastguard vessels to Japan’s claimed territorial waters around the islets.
Japan’s narrative is that the Senkakus have always belonged to the Japanese and that China is trying to change the status quo by coercion. But the Chinese narrative is that, historically, the Diaoyus have been part of China, that Japan acquired them by force, and that they should be returned to China.
From China’s perspective, it is Japan that changed the status quo in 2012 by purchasing the Diaoyus from their private owners, thus “nationalising” them and excluding China’s fishing boats and coastguard vessels from what Beijing considers its waters.

China justifies its vessels’ presence in these waters by saying the Diaoyus are its “inherent territory”. By this logic, Japanese boats are fishing illegally in Chinese waters, and China is refusing to accept Japan’s claims.


Diaoyu-Senkaku islands spat deepens as Japan warns China over coastguard ships in East China Sea

Diaoyu-Senkaku islands spat deepens as Japan warns China over coastguard ships in East China Sea

The US itself characterises its freedom of navigation operations, or Fonops, as a sign of its refusal to accept other states’ maritime claims.

These operations involve top-of-the-line warships challenging not only China’s claims of sovereignty over low-tide features in the South China Sea like Mischief Reef, but also its territorial sea regime requiring prior permission for the entry of military vessels.

Indeed, the US often practises gunboat diplomacy to assert its unilateral interpretations of provisions in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which it has not ratified.

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Although no country should acquiesce to claims it considers illegal, nonacquiescence can be effectively and sufficiently demonstrated by diplomatic communiqués.

The UN Charter states: “All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.”

In China’s view, it is the US that has changed the status quo in the South China Sea. As Chinese diplomat Liu Zhenmin said in 2015, US patrols have “gone beyond the scope of freedom of navigation. It is a political provocation.”

The US has certainly stepped up its military operations in the disputed South China Sea. Last year, US aircraft carrier strike groups entered the area 10 times.

To China, the disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea are quite different politically. It is most galling to Beijing that Tokyo denies there is any dispute over the rocks in the East China Sea.

In contrast, the US does not recognise Japanese sovereignty over the rocks. Indeed, the US takes no position on the question of who has sovereignty over the Diaoyus/Senkakus. However, it maintains that the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty covers the rocks.

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US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin has reaffirmed this, saying the US is opposed to “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo”, which apparently means Japan’s administration of the islets.

But just what is the status quo? With regard to the Diaoyus and the Spratlys, China’s position is that it has “never recognised the so-called ‘status quo’ of Diaoyu Dao and its affiliated islands as well as some maritime features of the Nansha Islands that were illegally seized and occupied by other countries”.

Meanwhile, Vietnam, which also claims features in the South China Sea, has said its “construction and embellishment do not change the status quo”.

So what does constitute a change in the status quo? Are incursions by Vietnamese fishing boats into China’s claimed waters around the Paracels a violation of the status quo – that is, China’s administration of the features?

A Chinese maritime surveillance vessel (right) passes near the Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea on July 1, 2013. Photo: Kyodo

Defining the status quo in the South China Sea is very complicated. To begin with, the status quo of what and from when – occupation, construction on or militarisation of those rocks, claims and assertions of resource rights, or control over maritime space? All have been in flux for some time.

In 2013, then US Pacific Command commander Samuel Locklear tried to clarify the US position by stating: “We will oppose the change of status quo by force by anyone.” However, it has only denounced China for doing so.

And what is this “force” the US speaks of? Does it entail the good old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy the US frequently practises in the South China Sea? When an aircraft carrier strike group arrives in a theatre, does it alter the status quo?

Actions that deviate from the US’ preferred “international order” do not necessarily violate international law – as long as they are not coercive. China might argue that its use of maritime militia and survey vessels in the South China Sea, even when protected by coastguard vessels, is only a demonstration of its claims and not coercion.

In the East China Sea, China thinks it has been relatively restrained. It has agreed to share fish stocks in most of the disputed area and agreed in principle to develop hydrocarbons in the area with Japan, although implementation has hit roadblocks.

Thus, a code of conduct governing behaviour in the disputed area would be a natural next step. The definitions of “status quo” and “force” should be included. At the very least, the US, Japan and China should specify their definitions and refrain from disingenuous accusations.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China