China’s East Sea policy has a clear delineation between short term and long term.
The strategy to maintain a continuous presence in the undisputed waters to gradually turn them into disputed areas has been resolutely pursued by Beijing. The 981 oil rig incident is a typical example. China used this oil rig as a “mobile sovereignty landmark ” to maintain its presence in the undisputed waters, even in the areas that are completely within the exclusive economic zone of its neighboring countries.
The objective of turning from “no dispute” to “dispute”, from “theirs” to “ours”, have been implemented in accordance with the motto of the Chinese people, “What is mine is mine, what’s yours, we can negotiate.”
Along with that move, China’s strengthening and expansion of the construction of artificial islands has shown their long-term strategic calculations in the East Sea. The 981 oil rig is a pretty risky move, but it is substantially easier to manage and attract the support of the international community for a small country like Vietnam. Meanwhile, though it takes place slowly and is difficult to identify, the artificial island building strategy is more dangerous.
Another way to evaluate China’s East Sea strategy is through changes of targets in certain stages. These are intentional changes. We will see the same thing when considering China’s maritime strategy from 2009 to present. For example, how could China say that the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) – signed in 2002 and the guidelines for implementing the DOC signed in 2011 – would be the lodestar navigation of the parties, when the use of force is still a key tool in Beijing’s policy.