Dispute in the East China Sea (UNSC)

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 lands 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. The United Nations does not take a position on the disputed sovereignty claims, but the UN Security Council is 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. A UN decision in this case could be difficult to achieve because China, a veto-wielding permanent member of the council, has the ability to block many actions that have proven effective in past disputes.

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.

The UN Security Council is convening to discuss, and take possible action on, the dispute between China and Japan in the East China Sea. The UN Security Council will consider both the immediate situation and the broader issue of the two sides’ competing claims. 

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 UN Security Council, as well as meeting these learning outcomes specific to this simulation:

  • Students will understand the UN Security Council’s interest in resolving the East China Sea dispute between China and Japan.
  • Students will consider how the dispute in the East China Sea constitutes a threat to international peace which requires action from the UN Security Council.
  • Students will evaluate various options that the UN Security Council has to address the dispute in the East China Sea.


Concepts and Issues



  • Relations between established and rising powers in Asia
  • Balance of power in the Pacific

Policy Options: Educator's Guide

As tensions rose in 2016, the UN Security Council had several interests in the East China Sea. China and Japan are both major powers and a conflict between the two could involve several more major powers. The United States has been a treaty ally of Japan since 1960. Likewise, several other members of the UN Security Council are treaty allies with the United States (most prominently France and the United Kingdom). Although the United States has remained neutral on the dispute, it has also stated that its commitment to Japan’s defense includes any threat to the islands. Consequently, rising tensions risked becoming an international confrontation, threatening global economic growth and the immediate safety of those in the region. The dispute in the East China Sea therefore posed a clear threat to international peace and security worthy of the UN Security Council’s consideration.

The UN Security Council had a number of options available to help resolve the East China Sea dispute. Most of these would be difficult to enforce, difficult to approve, or both. Negotiations have frequently had weak enforcement systems. International rulings have often gone ignored. Stronger measures such as imposing sanctions or deploying peacekeepers were likely impossible for the council to approve given China’s Security Council veto power. Given the high potential for a stalemate in the Security Council over this issue, members would have to carefully consider how the council could be most effective. 

The UN Security Council could consider the following options:

Call for negotiations to reduce tensions

The UN Security Council could direct China and Japan to negotiate in an attempt to resolve the situation peacefully, perhaps using a mediator. The United Nations could use its leverage to persuade Beijing and Tokyo to reduce their military forces in the region. The United Nations could encourage greater communication between the two countries’ militaries to avoid unintended incidents.

This option would be the least ambitious, yet it would be the most likely to gain the approval of member states. Calling for negotiations would offer a way to respond quickly to the situation at hand.. However, this option could not guarantee that China and Japan would respond to such a call. Security Council members would need to consider how they could ensure that these negotiations succeeded where past talks had failed. If negotiations were successful, the UN Security Council would also need to consider what monitoring and enforcement measures it could adopt. 

Refer the dispute for international arbitration

If China and Japan could not come to a peaceful agreement alone, the United Nations could adopt a resolution referring the matter to a third party for settlement. (This could be the United Nations’ International Court of Justice, or an independent body such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration). This option could prove more contentious among Security Council members than a call for negotiations. In particular, China could be reluctant to agree to arbitration. Security Council members would need to consider how, if at all, they could persuade China not to veto this option.

International arbitration could provide a legitimate forum for the dispute to be settled. However, if the Security Council decided to refer the dispute to any international body for arbitration, members need to be aware of the lack of enforcement mechanisms for any decision. China has rejected previous rulings against it in territorial disputes and could do so in this case as well. Furthermore, cases can take years to resolve, and the lack of immediate action could allow the dispute to escalate. This option would avoid certain risks that other options pose but could also signal a weak UN commitment to stability in the region.

Authorize military action to prevent escalation

The United Nations could adopt a resolution authorizing military action by the United States or other outside powers to prevent escalation of the dispute between China and Japan. This action could entail military forces from a third country conducting military patrols in the East China Sea to keep Japanese and Chinese forces separate. This could possibly prevent further incidents, and prevent escalation. However, involving 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 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.

This option would be extremely difficult to implement, as China would likely veto any measures that could harm its national interests. Military actions involving outside powers, especially the United States, would likely not gain Chinese approval. Security Council members would need to consider what, if anything, they could do to persuade China to willingly allow outside military forces into waters it claims as part of its territory.

No action

The Security Council could decide it is unable to take meaningful action in the East China Sea in light of conflicting interests among council members. In this case, Security Council members could issue a presidential statement expressing concern about the situation but ultimately leave action up to individual countries. If the situation worsened, however, this decision could give rise to criticisms of the Security Council for failing to take action on a growing threat to international peace and security.