Revelations of Chinese missile placements and radar facilities in the South China Sea suggest it might be an opportune time to reflect on the meaning of “self-restraint” in the Asian maritime theater. It is precisely because self-restraint appears so lacking of late, and the disputes so volatile, that it should be actively reinserted into the conversation.

When defending its policies in the South and East China seas, Beijing has frequently said, “In spite of the sufficient historical and legal evidence and its indisputable claims of rights and interests, China has exercised enormous restraint, making positive contributions to peace and stability of the region.” But this highlights what many see as a major disconnect between rhetoric and reality.

Beijing’s claims of “enormous restraint” occur concomitant with China’s large-scale construction of artificial features and facilities for both civil and military purposes. Though other South China Sea disputants have also engaged in reclamation and construction activities, the pace and scale of China’s behavior dwarfs that of any other.

Beijing’s repeated use of “restraint” [克制] is not accidental. The 2002 China-ASEAN Declaration of Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) calls on all parties to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.” U.S. leaders, including President Barack Obama, have similarly called on all sides to exercise “restraint,” and pushed for a freeze on provocative acts and conclusion of a binding code of conduct.

As efforts are made in pursuit of sincere “self-restraint,” Japan’s longstanding policies vis-à-vis the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese), though rarely discussed, provide a model worthy of emulation. The well of mutual trust in the South China Sea is undoubtedly poisoned at present, but a binding, universally agreed-upon, and concrete definition of “self-restraint” consistent with the spirit of the 2002 DOC remains necessary. The relevant obstacles to doing so are fundamentally political, though this is not to say they will be easily solved.


Looking Northeast: Political Will as the Variable

 History shows that territorial disputes can be major drivers of interstate conflict; yet they are not inherently intractable. How two (or more) parties choose to address a dispute is fundamentally a question of political will.

Asia provides several recent examples of successful management, and even final resolution, of previously intractable disputes—including those involving China. For its part, Japan has for decades administered the Senkaku Islands—also claimed by mainland China and Taiwan. Yet despite perceived Chinese provocations, Japan’s leaders have repeatedly chosen not to provocatively develop or militarize the islands. Furthermore, together with Taipei (which shares Beijing’s claim) they have shown that dispute resolution is not a prerequisite for constructive and creative measures to reduce tensions. The two governments have prioritized positive, stable political relations.

Indeed it was precisely as the possibility of Japan “nationalizing” three of the islands heated up in August 2012 that Taiwan proposed the East China Sea Peace Initiative. President Ma called on all sides to “replace confrontation with dialogue, shelve territorial disputes through negotiations, formulate a Code of Conduct in the East China Sea and engage in joint development of resources.” He said that “while sovereignty is indivisible, resources can be shared.” In April 2013, following 17 rounds of negotiations, Taipei and Tokyo signed a bilateral fisheries agreement in the hopes of ending a four-decade source of bilateral friction.

Importantly, Taipei proposed this initiative at the height of the controversy surrounding Tokyo’s nationalization of the islands and despite reiterating that on historical, geographical, and international legal grounds, Taiwan considers its sovereignty over the territory “indisputable.”  This constructive approach demonstrates that even if seemingly intractable definitions of sovereignty exist, a destabilizing spiral of political friction, much less military tensions or conflict, is by no means inevitable.


Restraint with Japanese Characteristics: Big Dogs That Didn’t Bark

 Beijing’s definitions of its own “self-restraint” in the South China Sea is inextricable from its stance that “indisputable” historical and legal evidence supports its claim. Beijing is hardly alone in taking such a firm position. Indeed, Tokyo’s official position on the Senkaku Islands—like those of Beijing and Taipei—is predicated on an almost identical belief: that “historical facts” and “international law” make it “indisputable” that the islands are an “inherent part” of Japan. Remarkably, Beijing and Tokyo even use identical characters to assert their respective claims’ “inherent” nature (Chinese: 固有领土; Japanese: 固有の領土).

But in contrast to Beijing’s actions in the South and East China seas, Tokyo’s behavior vis-à-vis the Senkakus has actually reflected the DOC’s call for “self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes.” This is ironic since the agreement does not cover the East China Sea, nor is Tokyo a party to it, while Beijing and other South China Sea claimants are. Japan’s leaders have repeatedly chosen not to develop, much less militarize, the islands. Government records of discussions among political leaders dating back to the 1970s reveal that they have consistently prioritized the islands’ “peaceful and stable” management (平穏かつ安定的な維持及び管理).

This restraint is particularly notable given widespread international recognition that Japan has administered the islands at least since Okinawa “reverted” to Japanese control in 1972, and for 50 years before the U.S. occupation—a period for part of which Japanese nationals actually lived and worked there. Tokyo’s commitment to self-restraint has held despite major changes in Beijing’s behavior since 2012 and the issue’s devolution to become the most volatile flashpoint in Sino-Japanese relations. In a revealing case-in-point of the depth of commitment to self-restraint, basic policy has not changed under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—a leader who pledged while campaigning for the prime ministership to develop the islands, and who Beijing considers “nationalistic” and “anti-China.”


Desperately Seeking Statesmen

Japan’s self-restraint continues despite its refusal to acknowledge even the existence of a dispute. Ironically, and unfortunately, it is because Japan does not behave provocatively that its policy never makes headlines. Yet its constructive behavior demonstrates that even when a government claims territory “inherently,” acknowledges no dispute, and exercises effective administrative control, it still can choose self-restraint in the interest of regional stability. Meanwhile, Tokyo’s and Taipei’s initiatives demonstrate that when two are willing to hear the music, they can indeed tango.

As relevant parties search for a framework to manage South China Sea tensions, a consensus, binding definition of “self-restraint” faithful to the spirit of the 2002 DOC is the Holy Grail. The deck today seems stacked against it. Unconstructive activities driving changes to the status quo are unlikely to be reversed. Political will among relevant parties remains in doubt. Nevertheless, as observers naturally focus on tension and conflict, constructive alternatives must be proactively kept a part of the conversation.

That Japan’s decades-old policy of self-restraint is so often ignored is perhaps evidence that, at least until recently, it proved so effective.

About Adam P. Liff

Adam P. Liff is Assistant Professor of East Asian International Relations in Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies (SGIS). He is also Associate-in-Research at Harvard University's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. His research website is