President Barack Obama's visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines is confirmation that America-led bilateral security relationships remain the backbone of peace and stability in the region. Even so, the greater military power and economic weight of countries such as Japan might tempt weaker South-east Asian capitals to stay on the sidelines when it comes to tensions in the East China Sea and adopt a less direct and confrontational approach to keeping Chinese behaviour in check in the South China Sea.
That would be a mistake. Essential to Beijing's "divide and rule" strategy is to convince states that its interests in the East China Sea are unrelated to those in the South China Sea, and vice versa. In reality, South-east Asian states should realise that as far as China is concerned, the latter's maritime claims are indivisible. Known for the creative multilateral diplomacy that only smaller states tend to pursue, it is time that key players within ASEAN push for a Code of Conduct that prohibits the use of force to settle territorial disputes to cover all maritime regions in the Asia-Pacific, not just the South China Sea.
China's strategic interests in the East and South China Seas are obvious. Making good on its claims in the region would allow it an unimpeded strategic breakout beyond the so-called constraints of the First Island Chain. This is an imaginary line stretching from north-east China, through Japan and the Ryukyu archipelago, the Philippines and down to the Strait of Malacca.
But there is more than naval strategy at play. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now committed to the fiction that China is simply restoring the proper strategic and territorial order that has stood for millennia. This ignores the reality that the self-designated Middle Kingdom is only one of several historic kingdoms and polities with longstanding interests in the region. In particular, and in its commitment to recreate what the CCP sees as the natural condition of a "greater China", reclaiming its "historic waters" in the East and South China Seas is becoming central to the CCP's political raison d'etre. These claims have been reaffirmed as essential elements of President Xi Jinping's "China Dream" and figure prominently in various official documents produced by the People's Liberation Army such as its Defence White Paper.
Importantly, and having been entrenched in state-sanctioned official histories, the "greater China" fiction increasingly shapes the contemporary outlook and expectations of a growing number of Chinese elites as the country's unregulated media such as blog sites would attest to.