Dispute in the East China Sea (NSC)

Educator Overview

Case Overview

Set in September 2016. Japan has long maintained an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that encompasses the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, over which it has administrative control. China declared its own ADIZ in 2013, stating it had the right to take military action against any aircraft that entered the zone without prior notification. Japan, along with the United States and South Korea, has protested the Chinese ADIZ and refuses to conform to China’s demand for prior notification. Japanese civilian and military aircraft continue to operate in the skies above the East China Sea. The intensification of the island dispute has raised political sensitivities in both countries, making it difficult for leaders to ignore the increasing interaction between ships and aircraft in the area. China now sends its coast guard to patrol the islands alongside Japan’s coast guard. The changing balance of military and economic power in Asia, growing popular distrust between the two nations, and deep dependence on the sea lanes for access to energy resources and trade have heightened concerns that Japan and China may inadvertently end up in an armed clash. Miscalculation by their militaries or an unforeseen incident provoked by fishermen or sovereignty activists could trigger a crisis. Washington does not take a position on the disputed sovereignty claims, but the United States has a treaty commitment to defend Japanese territory, including territory under its administrative control, against attack or the threat of attack. Because the use of force between China and Japan would likely lead to U.S. involvement, Washington has a stake in deterring and dissuading aggression by either party. The U.S. government has decided to convene a National Security Council (NSC) meeting to consider any action it should take to ease tensions in the East China Sea and to evaluate its long-term policy in the region.

Decision Point

Over the Summer of 2016, tensions in the East China Sea suddenly ratcheted up. In June, a Chinese frigate sailed through the disputed zone of the East China Sea. Although Chinese coast guard ships passed through the area before, this marked the first appearance of a Chinese naval vessel. In the following weeks, China alleged that Japanese fighters intercepted its military aircraft over the disputed islands. During the incident, Japan’s fighters briefly locked weapons radar on the Chinese aircraft. Two months later, hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels appeared in the waters near the disputed islands in the East China Sea. For the first time, these vessels were accompanied by seven Chinese law enforcement vessels.

With tensions showing no sign of easing, policymakers and media outlets alike have turned their eyes to Washington to see how the United States will respond. The president has convened a National Security Council meeting to consider possible action it could take to ease related tensions.

Learning Goals

CFR Education simulations use a variety of pedagogical tools to create an effective, meaningful, and memorable learning experience for students that builds their global literacy. Students will develop crucial skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Students will complete authentic assessments that feel relevant: instead of five-paragraph essays and book reports, students will write policy memos and participate in a role-play of a meeting of a foreign policy–making body. There are no right or wrong answers in actual policy deliberations, and there are none here, either; students will walk away from this experience with an appreciation for the complexity of policy questions.

In this simulation, students will learn about the National Security Council, as well as meeting these learning outcomes specific to this simulation:

  • Students will understand the multifaceted nature of U.S. interests in the East China Sea dispute between China and Japan.
  • Students will consider how a miscalculation or use of force between China and Japan would destabilize the region and disrupt the global economy.
  • Students will evaluate the various options that the United States has to help resolve the dispute in the East China Sea.

Concepts and Issues



  • U.S. treaty responsibility to Japan
  • Relations between established and rising powers in Asia
  • Trade and investment relationships among China, Japan, and the United States
  • Balance of power in the Pacific

Policy Options: Educator's Guide

This section presents context, potential benefits and drawbacks, and other information about the policy options outlined in the case that you may find helpful as you guide the role-play and assess students. 

The United States is especially concerned about the escalating tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea. The growing interactions between the two nations’ militaries, the lack of a political dialogue on risk reduction, and the sensitivity of public opinion in both nations, as well as in Taiwan, have created a challenging situation. 

The United States has a number of options as it considers its role in helping to resolve the ECS dispute. Washington could use its leverage to persuade Tokyo and Beijing to reduce their maritime and air forces in the region, or encourage greater military-to-military communication (such as through the development of hotlines). It could also express greater vocal support for either China or Japan. However, if it were to lean in favor of China, Japan and other U.S. allies in the region could begin to reassess their close relationships with the United States. On the other hand, if Washington were to demonstrate its support for Tokyo, Japan could interpret this backing as a blank check to behave recklessly, thereby escalating the conflict. 

The United States could help build frameworks of cooperation for the East China Sea, working to reinforce the 2008 joint energy agreement and other mechanisms for resource sharing. It could attempt to persuade the parties to accept international arbitration on this dispute or to involve other regional players such as South Korea. 

Before considering specific policy steps, NSC members should clearly establish which objective they believe the United States should aim to achieve. Two broad objectives are possible:

  • The United States maintains its current position of neutrality over the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and maintains or arrives at a stable arrangement, whatever it may be. In this case, the only overriding goal is to avoid hostilities. 
  • The United States helps establish a new state of affairs, such as recognized Japanese sovereignty over the islands, recognized Chinese sovereignty, or a new status agreed to by all parties concerned.

NSC members’ thoughts about the desired goal are likely to affect the applicability of the various policy steps available. Many of these steps can be undertaken together or sequentially.

Use diplomatic measures to reduce tensions

Washington could use its leverage to try to persuade Beijing and Tokyo to reduce their military forces in the region, or to encourage greater military-to-military communication. It could further urge the two parties to return to negotiations to resolve the dispute peacefully. If China and Japan cannot come to a peaceful resolution alone, the United States could attempt to persuade the parties to accept international arbitration and bring the matter before the United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ). It could also express greater vocal support for either China or Japan, in hopes that this support would prompt the other party to stand down. However, if the United States were to lean in favor of China, Japan and other allies in the region could reassess their close relationships with the United States. And if Washington were to express support for Tokyo, Japan could interpret the support as a blank check to behave recklessly, thereby escalating the conflict.

A diplomatic approach has several advantages. If successful, it could peacefully achieve a lasting deescalation of tensions in the region. It also entails the least risk of drawing U.S. military forces into conflict and would help maintain stability in the region. Further, a diplomatic approach also poses a lower risk of damage to the United States’ economic relationships with China and Japan. That China and Japan can be persuaded to come to the negotiating table, however, is no guarantee. Meanwhile, Japan could criticize the United States for failing to enact a robust response that signals its commitment to Japan’s defense. 

Use U.S. military forces to prevent escalation

The United States could use its military and naval forces to try to contain the incident and prevent escalation. Those efforts could involve offering search-and-rescue assistance for the downed aircraft, increasing naval and air patrols in the East China Sea, and conducting military exercises with Japan to increase readiness and demonstrate U.S. commitment to Japanese defense. Such action could keep Chinese and Japanese military forces separate, possibly avoiding further incidents, and deter escalation on the part of the Chinese. It would further signal U.S. resolve in the face of China’s military growth.

At the same time, involving U.S. military personnel in the dispute carries significant risks. The increase of military presence in the region could raise the chances of an accident or miscalculation; any U.S. military response would need to be effectively communicated to both Chinese and Japanese military forces in the area to minimize the risk of an unintended incident. Moreover, any escalation in the situation could put U.S. military personnel at risk. This response could also damage the U.S. relationship with China.

No action

The United States could simply maintain its neutrality and allow China and Japan to resolve the incident on their own. This option would avoid the risks that the other options pose, both to U.S. military personnel and to U.S. relations with China and Japan. However, taking no action could also signal a weak U.S. commitment to its presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Further, if China and Japan fail to come to a peaceful resolution and the situation escalates, the United States could face more forceful calls to honor its treaty commitment to defend Japan, requiring greater U.S. involvement than before.

The nature of this scenario—a dangerous situation that could easily turn more violent—could leave room for steps from both categories of policy measures. Still, some of the steps could be most practical in the short-term. Others will take more time and would thus be viable only if an immediate crisis is averted. NSC members may wish to advise that the United States take certain steps now while outlining other steps to be taken if the situation evolves in certain ways.

As noted, the determination of the United States’ overall goal in this situation will also shape consideration of particular policy steps. If, for example, policymakers decide to maintain U.S. neutrality over the islands’ status, diplomatic steps such as encouraging bilateral or multilateral discussions, or encouraging the parties to seek arbitration, could be desirable. Policymakers could also find it useful to reiterate the current U.S. policy, including the applicability of the security guarantee with Japan. If a crisis erupts, a U.S. desire to maintain neutrality could dictate urging the parties to stand down and offering assistance to both sides. If, on the other hand, policymakers wish to change the U.S. stance, they may seek to steer any diplomatic initiatives more directly in the desired direction and to respond militarily to a crisis in a way that advances the new U.S. aim.