A storm has been brewing off the Chinese coast for years. The upcoming superpower is fighting with its neighbors over resources and influence. An escalation would have a global impact.
Nobody doubts that an escalation of the conflicts over disputed areas of the South and East China Seas would have an impact well beyond the maritime borders. Not only would world trade falter, but the global security landscape would also be shaken.
Chinaand Japan - two of the world's biggest economies - are embroiled in an increasingly antagonistic dispute over the East China Sea. Both are big export nations that also import significant amounts of raw materials and maintain a global network of trading partners.
Some 40 percent of the world's shipped goods pass through the South or East China Seas, where the world's three largest ports in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong handle more than 86 million containers a year.
"These seas represent a key region in global container traffic," said Eberhard Sandschneider from the German Council on Foreign Relations, adding that an escalation of the conflict would be felt directly in the US and Europe.
"If China can no longer supply goods, the shelves at Walmart will remain empty," he told DW. "That would also be the case for certain products in Europe."
The conflict is already making many traders nervous, according to Sandschneider. "No container line wants to be transporting goods through regions where there are occasional military conflicts," he said. "The fact is, when there's war, trade suffers."
Global security landscape at risk
The geo-strategic significance of the region also poses a threat to global security.
The uninhabited East China Sea islands, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, provide China with a gate to the Pacific. Japan's claims of sovereignty over the islands and the surrounding waters are seen by China as a restriction of its freedom to use the gate as it wants. If China could lay claim to the islands, it would have an undisputed corridor between Japanese and Taiwanese territory.
"The sea offers a key position to control not only Southeast Asia but also the larger territory of South and East Asia," said Gerhard Will from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Some of the weaker parties in the conflict have entered into a security cooperation with the US.
The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 requires the United States for example "to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character" and "to maintain the capacity of the US to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan."
Earlier this year, Mark E. Manyin from the Congressional Research Service confirmed that the US-Japanese security agreement included the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
Last year, the US and the Philippines reaffirmed the terms of their mutual defense alliance and held joint sea maneuvers. And even Vietnam is growing closer to the US. All these countries, as well as other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, are worried about China's rise to superpower.
China's military expenditure
They are particularly concerned about China's growing military expenditure. Beijing has been systematically increasing its defense budget, which is currently about 5.4 percent of total expenditure. According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute, the budget almost tripled to 129 billion US dollars between 2003 and 2011. That's more than the combined defense budgets of the neighboring states involved in the maritime dispute.
Some of these states have begun expanding their navies in an effort to avoid completely losing their standing and becoming totally dependent on the US. Vietnam recently ordered six Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines from Russia, which are expected to be in operation by 2014, according to Carlyle Thayer, a security expert and Vietnam specialist.
"While the likelihood of major conflict remains low, all of the trends are in the wrong direction, and prospects of resolution are diminishing," International Crisis Group concluded last summer in a report. "In the absence of regional agreement on policy options or an effective mechanism to mitigate and de-escalate incidents, this strategically important maritime domain will remain unstable."
Sandschneider warns that "small incidents can quickly get out of control." He says nationalism is one of the most important internal driving forces and should not be underestimated for its capacity to quickly wave aside rational thinking.
Governments might be persuaded by nationalism to embark on adventures that could have global consequences.