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Tough course

August 16, 2012

The territorial disputes over barren mini-islands in East Asian waters aren't going away as the recent clash between China and Japan clearly shows. There's plenty at stake: oil, gas, fish - and national pride.

A boat, center, is surrounded by Japan Cost Guard's patrol boats
Image: dapd

If you're having trouble keeping track of the disputes among several nations staking claims to waters and island groups in the East and South China Seas, you're hardly alone.

Since early April, China and the Philippines have been locked in a standoff at the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, claiming to own a string of inlets there.

Frayed relations

Now China and Japan are butting heads over a chain of islands in the East China Sea, known as Diaoya in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese.

On Wednesday, Japanese police arrested a group of 14 Chinese activists for landing on one of the disputed islands - only to release them two days later after the move sparked protests in China.

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force plane flies over an island
China and Japan butt heads over territory in the East China SeaImage: Reuters/Kyodo/Files

The row over the islands has further frayed relations between the Asian neighbors and the region's two biggest economies. Their relations have long suffered from Japan's occupation of China during World War II and rivalry over resources and regional clout ever since.

The arrests of the Chinese activists coincided with the 67th anniversary of the end of World War II, a move that has further fueled the already heated tensions between China and other nations with claims in the East Asian waters.

Competing claims

The list of clashes in the region is long and growing.

In the South China Sea, numerous islands, some of them godforsaken patches of rocky or marshy land that disappears at high tide, have competing and passionate claims by a number of countries, including Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, in addition to China, Japan and South Korea.

The waters are home to heavy shipping lanes, rich fishing and, potentially, vast oil and natural gas reserves. Plenty of economic interests are at stake.

And, in the case of Japan, there's plenty of history involved, too.

Chinese surveillance ships and a Philippines warship
Chinese and Philippine forces meet in the South China SeaImage: Reuters

"I would say that the China Sea disputes are primarily about natural resources; China is hungry for resources and is much more vocal today in expressing its interests," said Monique Chu from the University of London School of School of African and Oriental Studies. "But history plays a role as well. World War II is still a subject of intensive debate."

Changing history

Many experts claim Japan has yet to convince all its Asian neighbors that it has fully repented. They point, for instance, to the country's attempts to amend its history books as just one example.

Post-war treaties have also proved to be incomplete and an increasing sore spot. Although the San Francisco Peace Treaty, for example, settled much between Japan and the allied powers, it overlooked the governance of smaller pieces of territory in the region.

One such area is the Senkaku chain of islands, which are claimed by China and Taiwan, in addition to Japan. Another is the Dokdo island cluster, known as Takeshima in Japan, which regularly inflames Japanese and South Korean tensions.

Military confict

"Although the likelihood of a major armed conflict remains low - none of the claimant countries want to be drawn into a military conflict - the possibility of skirmishes is on the rise," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, head of the Beijing office of the International Crisis Group (ICG).

"An increasing deployment of civilian and law enforcement vessels, which engage in conflicts more readily than naval boats, and a hardening position by all claimants has made the region increasingly volatile. Additionally, the lack of a mechanism to defuse potential clashes has made the escalation of a clash into an armed skirmish more likely."

Chinese military
China lays claim to many islands in the East and South China SeaImage: Getty Images

Gerhard Will, a South East Asia expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, points to blurred signals coming from Beijing.

Different interests

"On the one hand, you have the foreign ministry pushing for more cooperation with other nations and, on the other, the army wanting increasingly to flex its muscle," he said. "And then you have, in the case of the South China Sea, the big state companies pursuing their economic interests."

The many different interests, Will added, "show that China is becoming a pluralistic society."

Author: John Blau
Editor: Sarah Berning