Chinese maritime surveillance ships continue to patrol the waters around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and near the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Beijing's continued presence in both areas reflects a multi-pronged strategy to assert China's claims to a broad maritime territory and to shape regional perception about the willingness of the United States to physically intervene.
In the late 1990s, tensions between China and the Philippines escalated over Chinese construction on the disputed Mischief Reef in the South China Sea. China claimed it was building a shelter for fishermen, but over time added structures for the military, effectively denying access to Philippine fishing vessels. This was an early move by China to more formally assert its longstanding claim to large areas of the South China Sea, encompassed in a so-called nine-dash line that loosely marked Chinese claimed territory.
The current maritime occupation of Scarborough Shoal follows a similar pattern, one that the Philippine government is finding itself unable to counter effectively. Because China is using civilian ships to occupy the reef, Manila is compelled to respond in kind, relying on the Philippine Coast Guard and civilian research vessels to try to assert the Philippine claim. But China's various maritime surveillance and fisheries enforcement ships are often far more capable than their civilian counterparts among their Southeast Asian neighbors and in some cases are refurbished warships from the PLA navy. In Mischief and Scarborough, China is using its presence to make a case, in any future international mediation, that possession is nine-tenths of the law, and China clearly has possession.
In the case of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the Chinese are facing off against a much more robust navy, but as with the Philippines, the Japanese feel compelled to respond with Coast Guard ships, rather than Maritime Self-Defense Force ships, and thus they too are finding themselves potentially outclassed by China's civilian maritime protection fleet. Tokyo has plans to launch a 12-ship dedicated Coast Guard unit to monitor and protect the disputed islands, but this will not be ready until 2015 at the earliest. That gives China another two years to further establish its presence, though both Beijing and Tokyo are thus far refraining from attempts to establish facilities on the disputed islands.
Both the Philippines and Japan are also ally partners of the United States in the region, and China's occupation of their maritime territory has encouraged Manilla and Tokyo to call on Washington for support. In both cases, the United States has said it takes no official stance on territorial sovereignty, though it does recognize the administrative control of its allies. Washington is expanding air and sea-based patrols, but is refraining from confronting the Chinese presence and is urging its allies not to exacerbate tensions. The United States' caution plays in to another aspect of Beijing's strategy — attempting to shape regional perceptions regarding the maritime balance of power between China and the United States and the reliability of the United States to back its regional partners.
Following the 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy corvette by a North Korean submarine, South Korea announced joint exercises with a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea. The exercises, however, were delayed several times as Beijing protested the carrier deployment. The delay in the face of Chinese concern, despite the military attack by the North Koreans on a U.S. treaty ally, left many in the region wondering about the reliability of the U.S. military if there were a confrontation with China. Beijing would now like to keep that level of doubt growing to help shape political will and actions in the region. As Beijing expands its defense perimeter and its political and economic influence in the region, it hopes to decrease expectations of the United States serving as a counter and offering its neighbors an alternative to cooperation with China's intents.