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Amidst the vast expanse of the Indo-Pacific lie two seas of immense strategic importance: the East and South China Seas.While often viewed as one unified theater of contention, their unique characteristics and disputes demand individual scrutiny. China, perceiving them as contiguous extensions of its maritime domain, pursues a unified approach, which we colloquially term "China's One Sea." However, regional stakeholders reject this notion, asserting their maritime rights in distinct ways.

In the East China Sea, bilateral disputes, such as the Senkaku Islands conflict between China and Japan, dominate. Conversely, the South China Sea presents a multilateral arena due to the involvement of various claimants, including ASEAN members. Responses to China's assertiveness vary: the Philippines adopts a confrontational stance, while Vietnam combines land reclamation with diplomatic overtures. Meanwhile, Malaysia maintains a consistent stance while discreetly resolving disputes. Taiwan Strait tensions further complicate the picture, with potential ramifications for regional security.

The strategic importance of these seas lies in their rich resources, vital shipping lanes, and escalating militarization. China's legal maneuvers, combined with military coercion, aim to assert control, posing challenges to international maritime law. Despite international efforts, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, disputes persist.

Differences between the East and South China Seas extend beyond sovereignty claims. While both witness military build-up, the South China Sea hosts contested land features occupied by multiple claimants, unlike the uninhabited Senkaku Islands. China's tactics reflect its diverse strategies: from coercive patrols to selective engagement with international law.

The United States, not a claimant, plays a crucial role in supporting partners and upholding the rules-based order. While realistic expectations for dispute resolution are necessary, continued support for partners and institutions remains paramount. Minilateral solutions offer hope amidst the complex web of tensions, ensuring access to these critical seas and countering China's "One Sea" narrative.


Metis Insights: Taiwan Strait


Source: War on the Rocks