As a comic-book fan, I’ve always been curious about who might win in a battle between DC’s Justice League and Marvel’s Avengers. The heroes of Justice League and Avengers possess superhuman powers and when either one of them are called on (or turn up) in an emergency, they usually win and are the hero of the day. A battle between these superpowers could, however, be devastating and a fight between these groups of heroes could see one of them labelled as a villain.

Like these comic-book heroes, the real-life ‘superpowers’ of China and the US can be seen to have an inordinate impact as they engage in disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. In a continuation of the comic-book analogy, the smaller states of these regions are the ordinary people who are affected—some directly, others indirectly—and at the same time trying their best to control the situation.

While there are many participants to the claims and disputes over these waters, it is how the superpowers engage that ultimately has the greatest impact.

So what should these smaller states—the comic-books' ordinary citizens—do to ensure that they can survive the battle between the superpowers?   

The disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea are characterised by ‘cat and mouse games’, with each claimant state deploying its coast guard vessels, ships and aircraft on disputed waters and inevitably being seen by other claimants as a provocation.

The situation in the East China Sea in particular remains dynamic and fragile. With a small number of powerful states involved—including South Korea and Japan—there is a high risk of military confrontation.

The South China Sea dispute is similarly risky, but has additional layers of complexity. It is crucial to China and others in the region as an important trading route. China’s claim over the South China Sea is based on the ‘nine-dash line’, named after nine marks on a 1947 map, but the claim has little historical basis and is not recognized internationally. There are also six other claimants over various areas, as well as other military and commercial traffic through the region. Recent military activity by China that it terms ‘routine training’ is seen as a threat by smaller states, and some disputes have led to military skirmishes including casualties.

There are different perspectives concerning China’s ‘rise’. The realist view is that China’s assertion of power is a threat to the existing order, while the liberalist view is that, with its newfound power, it is China’s role to uphold world peace through cooperation.

Combining aspects of both the realist and liberalist views, US President Biden and the US Congress have maintained the Trump administration’s posture on China and the South China Sea. The US rejects China’s claims in the South China Sea and views it as an antagonistic actor that needs to be deterred, while also stressing US commitments to international initiatives and seeking to promote an ‘open’ world –  politically, economically and socially. Despite some stated decrease in global affairs, the US Navy continues to operate in the contested areas of the South China Sea and East China Sea in order to preserve freedom of navigation in East Asia’s contested waters.

Meanwhile China’s President Xi Jinping continues the development policy of his predecessor, Hu Jintao. This policy emphasises soft power to, as China states, ‘correct’ ‘misperceptions’ about China’s rise and its activities in the South China Sea, asserting that China does not threaten other nations.  This narrative further posits that a ‘China threat theory’ is the product of the US and its allies and is driven by US fear that China is challenging US global dominance and will replace the it as the dominant player in East Asia. Indeed, President Xi’s bold message to the US on China's rising power at the Boao Forum Asia conference demonstrated that China already considers itself the region’s main power. Xi wants the Biden administration to accept China as an equal player in addressing global challenges, not only as an emerging superpower.

The presence of the US in the region will remain the principal counterweight to a more powerful China. The US has strong political and strategic relationships with some claimant states in the region including Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. These countries are important to the US because of their potential as staging points for the US military forces in the region, as well as shared political interests and views. For some ASEAN claimant states such as Malaysia and Vietnam, however, human rights is an ongoing point of contention with the US, and is a key reason why they avoid establishing a formal alliance with the US.

There are many regional players involved in the maritime territorial disputes in relation to overlapping claims, particularly the Senkaku/Diaoyu and Dokdo/Takeshima Islands in the East China Sea, and the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. But above all of these, the most influential factor in this contest is the relationship between the US and China. The future of these disputes will largely depend on how these two superpowers choose to engage with each other, and others in the region.

My research paper on this issue examines a number of case studies, each selected due to their ongoing importance in the international politics and economics of East Asia, and their importance to the US-China relationship in the region. While there are varying factors such as politics, power, economics and leadership, in each case the disputed claims are actively contested in waters that are heavily used for military and commercial purposes. The overlapping claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea remain potential flashpoints for conflict and rely on the complex relations between China and the US in determining the outcome.

If these two superpowers choose to behave as the superheroes each purports to be—like the Avengers and Justice League—they can maintain peace in east and Southern Asia, protecting the ‘ordinary citizens’ of the region.

Committing to peace and cooperation is, however, complex in the challenging broader bilateral relationship between the US and China.

If the superheroes focus instead primarily on their own interests, without fully considering  the impact on other countries in the region, one or both of them may instead turn out to be an evil super-villain, like DC's Steppenwolf or Marvel's Thanos.

Superhero or super-villain – the choice is theirs.

Major Rose A. Ibrahim Sukri is an officer of the Royal Malaysian Air Force. She was a Fellow in the inaugural ASEAN Military Fellowship in Maritime Security, June-August 2021, where she was based at the Royal Australian Air Force's Air and Space Power Centre. Major Sukri conducted research on the impact on ASEAN nations of US-China relations in the South and East China Seas.