Sun & Star Symposium | Asia’s Contested Waters: The East China and South China Sea

Thursday, September 19, 2013 (8:00 AM – 2:00 PM)
Crum Auditorium, Collins Executive Building (map)

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In recent months, tensions have flared over a smattering of islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.  Several Asian nations, including China, Japan, and Southeast Asian countries, have identified the ownership of rocky shoals in the region as matters of grave national interest to each of them.  Because these uninhabited spits of rock allegedly sit astride valuable caches of oil, gas, and fishing rights, several in proximity claim ownership.  Not surprisingly, these competing claims have caused these nations not only to squabble diplomatically but also to show off military might and nationalistic bravado in hopes the other interested parties will back down and change the status quo.  In the East China Sea, China and Japan have nearly come to blows over islands called the Senkaku by Japan and the Diaoyu by China.  Japan has long-governed those islands, but China claims that ownership was wrongfully established.  In the South China Sea, China is arguing primacy for the ownership of the whole Spratly Islands , while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam all claim some right to the islands.

Along with the rise of China, these rising tensions between China and many other Asian nations have potential to do significant damage in the region, from a souring of relations to prompting an arms race, from diplomatic showdowns to the potential for military conflict.  While the disputes are allegedly over the oil, gas, fishing and mineral resources, in fact there is more to it.  Simmering beneath the surface, there are hard feelings over past Japanese imperial conquest and fears over China’s goal to become the undisputed superpower in the area.  Thus far, diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have come to naught, and saber-rattling has become the preferred course of action.  Although the world would like to see a China confident in its presence in international society and working with other countries to solve global problems as a responsible stakeholder, in reality the China that has caused various conflicts with the U.S. and other foreign countries is on the rise because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has found it increasingly difficult to deal with its domestic problems.  As a result, China has become a “revisionist power” that challenges the status quo power balance in world politics.  The recent emphasis by President Xi Jinping on the “great restoration of the Chinese race” (Zhonghua minzu de weida fuxing) has exacerbated global discomfort with the potential negative impacts of China’s rise.  Moreover, the challenges that the CCP has faced, such as rural uprisings, workers’ strikes, and ethnic conflicts, seem to have enhanced the fragility of the one-party rule.

Given these significant and current challenges in the region, the John G. Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University plans to bring together a diverse group of experts—both historians as well as political scientists—who have observed the conflict and cooperation in the region, to examine the critical issues posed by the territorial disputes over these island chains, focusing on what implications China’s rise brings to these contested waters.  Among the central questions that will be addressed are:

  • What have the historical claims to these islands been, and how did the ownership become so contested over time?
  • Do the islands matter less for the oil, gas, minerals and fish located in and around them than they do for power struggles and primacy in the region?  What implications does China’s rise have on this issue?
  • What are the strategic interests of the United States in these disputes, and what should the U.S. foreign policy response look like given the political issues surrounding the various claims?
  • Given the rise of China, how do the conflicts over the contested waters in the East and South China Sea influence the U.S. strategic interests in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific?

Agenda & Speakers


Registration & Breakfast


Welcome & Introduction


Opening Address

  • Admiral Patrick Walsh, USN (Ret.) & Senior Fellow, Tower Center, SMU

Panel 1– The History of the Rights to Oil, Gas and Fishing in the East China and South China Sea

  • Alexis Dudden, University of Connecticut
  • William Tsutsui, Southern Methodist University
  • Micah Muscolino, Georgetown University
  • Discussant: Ling Shiao, Southern Methodist University

Panel 2– The Politics of Territorial Disputes: East and South China Sea

  • William Norris, Texas A&M University
  • Peter Gries, University of Oklahoma
  • Daniel Lynch, University of Southern California
  • Discussant: Hiroki Takeuchi, Southern Methodist University

Closing Remarks

  • Diana Helweg Newton, Senior Fellow, Tower Center, SMU

Keynote Lunch

“Chinese Politics and Changing Japan-China Relations”

Keynote Speaker: Ryosei Kokubun, President of National Defense Academy of Japan

kokubunProfessor Kokubun is President of the National Defense Academy of Japan.  His research interests encompass Chinese politics and international relations in East Asia. Professor Kokubun is the author of Chinese Politics and Democratization: Empirical Studies of the Post-Mao Reform (in Japanese) (1992), Evaluation of the Asian Era: From China’s Viewpoint (in Japanese) (1996), People’s Republic of China (in Japanese) (1999), and Contemporary Chinese Politics and Bureaucracy (in Japanese) (2004). He has edited numerous publications, including: Challenges for China-Japan-US Cooperation (1998); Sino-Japanese Relations: The Need for Conflict Prevention and Management (2008); Getting the Triangle Straight: Managing China-Japan-US Relations (2010); and Sino-Japanese Relations: Rivals or Partners in Regional Cooperation? (2013). Prior to becoming President of the National Defense Academy of Japan in 2012, he was Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Contemporary Chinese Studies at Keio University. He also served as Dean of the university’s Faculty of Law and Politics from 2007 to 2011 and Director of Keio’s Institute of East Asian Studies from 1999 to 2007.  He has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University, the University of Michigan, Fudan University, Beijing University, and National Taiwan University.

Program Partners





Keio Research Institute at SFC (KRIS)
Japan Studies Platform Laboratory