Why Asia is arguing over its islands
September 3rd, 2012
10:36 AM ET

Why Asia is arguing over its islands

By Christian Le Mière, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Christian Le Mière is a research fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The views expressed are his own.

It still amazes me how much media interest there currently is in the various maritime disputes of Asia. Five years ago, to find information on these then-obscure disagreements over tiny pieces of land required diligence and patience. Now, and in particular since the much-vaunted U.S. pivot to Asia, every week seems to bring new stories about these islands.

It is therefore worth our taking a step back and asking how we got here. What have been the drivers for the maritime disputes over the past five years, do they share any similarities, and why, when these disputes have existed for decades, have they become so tense now?

First, a reminder of the context. The islands in dispute are the Kurils (claimed by Japan and Russia); the Dokdo/Takeshima islands (South Korea and Japan); the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Tiaoyu islands (China, Taiwan and Japan); and the four major island groups of the South China Sea (in whole or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam). Other island disputes exist in East Asia (such as the Northern Limit Line between the Korea), but these four comprise the most contested and contentious.

These disputes are usually viewed in isolation, but there are similarities that they all share. Although claims of occupation and administration stretch back centuries, all of the disputes exist, to some extent, as legacies of imperial Japan’s expansion through East Asia in the first half of the 20th century, and its immediate withdrawal following its defeat in World War II. Before this period, most of the states in East Asia were too militarily weak to effectively enforce their claims; some were entirely occupied by imperial powers, and the modern international legal concepts of territorial sovereignty were arguably still alien to the region.

Hence, all of these disputes have seen greater competition as regional states have improved their military and paramilitary capabilities. This not only allows them to occupy and administer islands at the edge (or even beyond) their territory, but it also makes nations more concerned about these peripheral concerns as they become more confident in their internal monopoly of violence. The stabilization of areas of East Asia following decades of war also allows the focus to shift from the land to the sea.

In more recent years, the rise of China has inspired the greatest concern among its neighbors over these territorial disputes. Those countries surrounding China would point to its perceived “assertiveness.” The list of complaints is lengthy: in 1974 China’s People’s Liberation Army ousted Vietnam from the Paracel Islands; in 1988 the PLA fought Vietnamese troops over Johnson South Reef; in 1995 China occupied Mischief Reef; in 2009 a Chinese flotilla challenged the USNS Impeccable in its exclusive economic zone; in 2010 Japan claimed Beijing had used its trade as a coercive diplomatic tool by severely limiting rare earth metals exports; in 2011, Vietnam claimed Chinese civilian and paramilitary vessels had deliberately cut survey cables behind its exploration vessels; in 2012, the Philippines once again claimed Beijing had used coercive economic diplomacy by limiting banana imports amid the Scarborough Shoal fracas.

Beijing would of course dispute this interpretation, despite the seeming weight of evidence ranged against it. Vietnam, for instance, has been far more active in occupying features in the Spratly group, and Vietnam and the Philippines have both been more vigorous in pursuing hydrocarbon exploration in the South China Sea. China is, in Beijing’s narrative, merely reacting to the aggression of others. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that China’s neighbors perceive assertiveness on its part, and this, in tandem with the impressive improvements in China’s military capabilities, is driving the procurement of military capabilities in the region.

A further factor that has inspired fiercer competition has been the ability to exploit the likely hydrocarbon resources underneath the waters. It is of more than passing interest that the initial expansions of occupations in the South China Sea, in the early 1970s, occurred soon after a 1969 U.N. survey declared the likelihood of subsoil resources near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the initial Sino-Vietnamese clash came just months after the oil price spike of 1973.

In more recent years, China’s exploitation of gas in the Xihu trough in the East China Sea and licensing of blocks to foreign companies by Vietnam and the Philippines since the mid-2000s have all created friction between the disputants. Although no mineral resources have been tapped around Dokdo/Takeshima or the Kuril/Chishima islands, it is an often disregarded fact that rights to economic exploitation at sea stem from the land. Hence, sovereignty over any of the disputed island groups potentially grants hundreds of thousands of square miles of sea to be exploited.

Given that all of the major economies of Northeast Asia rely on imported oil and gas for their energy needs, this issue has only increased in importance in line with the oil price. But this is not to downplay the significance of other resources: some estimates claim that up to 700 million people in the South China Sea region alone rely on fishing for their livelihoods. It is no coincidence that it was the attempted arrest of Chinese fishermen by the U.S.-donated Philippine flagship that began the stand-off at Scarborough Shoal.

There are, of course, factors that are germane to any specific area that help explain why friction now dominates the tenor of the dispute. In the South China Sea, for instance, a May 2009 deadline for disputant states to submit their extended continental shelf claims led to a diplomatic flurry that heightened concern over the region, particular as China for the first time attached the infamous nine-dashed line to an official communication. Still, it is of interest intellectually and of relevance politically to point out that each of these disputes has seen an increase in antagonism at the same time.

There is, though, one other similarity across these disputes that is perhaps more positive. Despite sometimes ostentatious military deployments, whether it’s the Russians currently fortifying their position in the Kuril Islands or China undertaking live-fire exercises in the South China Sea, thus far almost all altercations in these various disputed Asian waters have involved paramilitary and not military vessels. In fact, the various states, while building up their military forces as a deterrent measure (or possibly a coercive one in the future) have been careful to avoid confrontation between rival military forces. The use of maritime paramilitaries carries various benefits, such as a latent demonstration of sovereignty, but perhaps key among them is that it demilitarizes, and therefore deescalates, the encounters that occur on these seas. This suggests that while these disputes may remain intractable, no claimant is currently seeking a conflict-based solution.

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Topics: Asia • China • Japan • South Korea

soundoff (167 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    While the disputes in Asia's Northeast might "remain intractale", The countries involved find a way to deal with each other as they have been doing so for centuries.

    September 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The disputes in the South China Sea are more complicated. They involve countries like Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. which are diverse. Apart from the J apanese occupation many don't share much in history. Each of them emerged quite recently and It takes time for them to tie knots.

      September 3, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply
      • Marine5484

        In these disputes, we need to let those countries over there settle their differences without our needless interference. This country has no business telling those countries over there what to do, j.von hettlingen.

        September 3, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
      • clearick

        China is trying to be a bully, so the other nations have invited the US in, which prevents the Chinese from using force. Given how far mainland China and Taiwan are from the S. China sea, it's very clear that the Chinese are excessively ambitious.

        September 4, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
      • Chinapatriot

        Taiwan is not an independent country.

        September 6, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
      • benji

        The south china sea issues are not complicated at all. Treaties encompass most of them. All can be resolved in international courts, but China is choosing to use bullying instead. It's really simple. China doesn't have a case, or they'd take it to court.

        China is on her expansion right now. It's Nazi germany all over again. Get ready for WW3 if we can't convince her to stop trying to expand in a modern world that rejects such expansion.

        September 7, 2012 at 3:04 am |
      • benji

        marine 234234234 or whatever, shut your pie hole. You should mind your own business and let real americans do the talking.

        September 7, 2012 at 3:05 am |
      • 200 mile EEZ

        China is claiming 200 mile economic zone of other countries. It is not resolving peacefully. China is doing economic war with its neighbors who has rights of the 200 mile EEZ. China killed citizen of these countries fishing in their 200 mile EEZ. Buy locally and improve your economy. Recall all factories, produced locally.

        Keyword: Most private company is run like a communist regime. Don't buy stocks that do outsourced in China. Help your own individual countries by producing locally and help the smaller countries being threatened by China. Democracy is the way to go.

        September 7, 2012 at 11:29 am |
      • Peace

        If WW2 taught us anything, aggression is incremental and never stop. If aggression is not stopped outright, soon, other countries will follow course. Until you know it, WW3 on the horizon. China began its aggression with the invasion of Paracels island group over S.Viet Nam's sovereignty after American completed it withdrawal from S.VN. No one dares to say anything but S.VN protest. Next, they went after Spratly island group of united VN. Next, China wants ownership of the entire South China sea, including international water.

        You figure out what will come next ....

        September 8, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
      • Down with Red China

        There is only one country on the Earth says "Taiwan belong to China and is not a country". The country is China. Even though Taiwan also claimed Diaoyu Islands belong to China (Republic of China, Taiwan), Taiwan is not part of China

        September 18, 2012 at 4:41 am |
      • ChinaMan

        Certainly Taiwan is a part of China. Taiwan is the name of an island where the ROC government is located, and China consists of the mainland and all it's islands, including Taiwan island.

        September 22, 2012 at 9:53 am |
      • Keyll

        Chinaman, I think Taiwan's independent, sovereign government may disagree with you. They're pretty convinced you're full of crap.

        October 23, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
      • confusedshoes

        Confucius sez "He who has more nuclear weapons can say who's full of craaap"

        January 24, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
      • David

        Down with Red China, Twain isn't an independent country (they call themselves the Republic of CHINA). The PRC and RC are rival Chinese gov'ts and both agree they're the same country.

        February 9, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
    • jay

      if only US would leave the countries in the region to deal with the problems themselves. at present, we are "World Police", so one day we show up to China's face, next day we go to Persian Gulf, then move to Middle East... really busy body all over the world.... meanwhile, we have 60% of our population grossly obese and soon die of heart and coronary diseases, roads and public infrastructure are 30 yrs behind China's. our kids are ranked below 30 in math and science but think they are the best in the world...most young voters #1 agenda is to legalize pot. what are we thinking?????!!!

      September 18, 2012 at 4:32 am | Reply
      • Pssssh..!

        And you think that we are doing that for free? How do you think you have sub $5.00 per gallon of gas?

        September 20, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
      • Keyll

        As the only country left in our circle of allies with a capable military who can counter blatant aggression in the world and the one benefiting the most from the world's current status quo, I would have to disagree with you Jay. So would many of the countries who benefit from our "interference."

        October 23, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
    • No Friend of China

      This is about China wanting to establish absolute control over the area the world refers to as the South China Sea. It's about China wanting and getting ALL of the oil, fishing and mineral rights for a vast area of the ocean while leaving virtually nothing for the other many nations in the area. China wants to absolutely control this region up to within mere miles of the coasts of nations like Vietnam, the Philippines and host of others.

      It's about China's absolute selfishness and greed.

      December 13, 2012 at 3:21 am | Reply
      • Confucious

        Absolutely right!

        April 26, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
      • Fan

        'So of the US gov did to Carribbean countries. Truth is always within the range of absolute power. No countries are dare to have conflicts with the US in Carribbean area. Don't flatter yourself as "world police establishing justice" We Chinese know the suffering when we were not strong enough to protect our people from being massacred. We love peace, but we are not cowards.

        April 26, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
    • balance07

      It is so easy to bring peace in the region.
      Stop Chinese invasion. That is what is happening around there.

      December 14, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Reply
      • ambrosia Li

        My friend, you have to spend more time in understanding the history and background of the dispute before jumping into the conclusion. China is no more a socialist country than USA in many aspects. At least China has not invaded, occupied and attempted to change the government of foreign countries with their choice like USA and that I would call communism and bullies of the World.

        December 23, 2012 at 2:28 am |
    • Bill39

      The reason WWII was so devastating was that Hitler successfully duped the world. While his forces were small, he made peace noises. As they grew, he continued the fake as he gradually became more aggressive. Finally, when he launched an all-out war, he/Germany had amassed huge resources that determined the scale of WWII. Other conditions in the world facilitated Hitler's maneuvering.

      The question is, how can a chain of events like that be recognized and stopped before it reaches catastrophic proportions? The world has been successful (or very lucky?) over the past ~60 years but I'm not sure we have a handle on the fundamental problem. The situation now is significantly complicated by nuclear weapons. Proliferation is changing the balance of power in Asia and the Middle East. Will the US and others sit quietly while North Korea and Iran build nuclear capabilities?

      February 17, 2013 at 10:47 am | Reply
  2. Peace

    What happens to my post? How come it does not show up? Was it censored?

    September 4, 2012 at 5:25 am | Reply
    • Joe Knutts

      China is just playing the Dominant Power role, they worked so long to establish. You know Make Money, Expand influence, Expand Territory, then eventually Make war. Its a game The US has played in its rise to global dominance. Does anyone remember "Manifest Destiny" and the Spanish – American War? USA really needs to keep out of it, and let the Asians work this out on their own. Do Folks really think that sending a Fleet to sit of the coast of China is going to prevent a war between these neighbors? I dont think it will. I think we'll wind up fighting that war, on behalf of Asian boys who should be defending their own country. Just think for a second how US Citizens and US Politicians would react with a Chinese Fleet off the Pacific coast, or a Russian fleet off the Atlantic coast.....

      September 5, 2012 at 10:36 am | Reply
      • ZC

        Totally agree. As an american citizen, I expect US to export more quality goods and services to make money in Asia, rather than sending multiple aircraft carriers over there.

        September 15, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
      • Gokou

        Lol. If US doesn't stop Chinese Invasion, the US Mainland's next.

        January 29, 2013 at 4:26 am |
    • SC

      As a Chinese, we seek peace,we strive for peace.But when other countries invade our territories, we can't just watch and do noting.Our citizens want all of those can be handle peacefully and legitimately.
      We are not what you think any more.

      September 15, 2012 at 12:14 am | Reply
      • Quy

        What do you think we are? 3 years old kids!!! Give me a break!!!! You know what your race is doing...YOU ARE THE AGGRESSOR AND HISTORY I S ABOUT TO REPEAT ITSELF!!!! ONCE THIS IS ALL OVER...CHINA OF YOURS WILL BE BROKEN UP INTO PIECES AND THAT IS THE WAY IT SHOULD BE.

        September 16, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
      • ed

        If China wants to resolve these disputes peacefully, why wouldn't she agree to bring it to an international court? Rather it resorts to flexing its military and economic muscles over its smaller neighbors. Clearly, your point of being peaceful and legitimate is a joke.

        September 17, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
      • Minh

        Peaceful? A bully by any other name is still a freakin' bully.

        December 13, 2012 at 10:48 am |
      • Gokou

        Invade? Territories? You mean China's invading and stealing other countries territories.

        January 29, 2013 at 4:28 am |
  3. krm1007 ©™

    We now need to focus on India. The American invasion of Afghanistan brought to the forefront the irrelevance of India as a nation. With a population of over 1.2 billion people there was no value that this nation could bring to the table. Their soldiers (ragtag) 1.2 million continue hiding in the trenches scared from Talibans. A few teenage Talibans invaded the country and held it hostage for days on end showing how useless India is. It was embarrasing for the world to observe this humiliation of a nation that was being touted as a regional power.

    Also, we continue to read with interest the thesis presented on CNN that "less is more" in a political context as applied to India. Although Mies Van Der Rohe adopted this in an architectural context, its economic and political connotations are indeed powerful. Empowering subjugated minorities in India by splitting it into smaller states would trigger uber economic demand for western nations who have given so much financial and technology aid to India with no return to show for the investment. We concur with this approach and find the premise to be on solid footing. Central Asian States (CAS) are a case in point on this successful approach. We need to understand that India has an unmanageable large population mired in poverty and we are spinning our wheels trying to feed it. It is also too big of a geographical unit to govern. Again, we saw how a few teenage talibans were able to invade it with a few BB guns. And that says a lot... albeit in a sad but humorous way not only for a large unmanageable country like India but also for USA which is trying to prop it up against China. Besides, Americans cannot afford to look like losers in the midst of a terror war which has lasted for over ten years now.

    September 4, 2012 at 8:34 am | Reply
    • Jesus' Santiago

      LOL...US is trying to use India to patrol the China Seas to antagonize China. US Navy is like rubber ducky for China. Hilarious !!!

      September 4, 2012 at 9:12 am | Reply
      • Alden

        Then I would suppose Indian Navy boats would be toys in a bath tub for China too. China has certainly come of age. No wonder Hillary is heading there.... partly to escape from Democratic Convention.

        September 4, 2012 at 11:51 am |
      • Rog

        China just bought one second hand carrier for their fleet! Yeah sure China is a naval "power" now. Another paid for commie propoganda post....

        September 4, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • Neo

      your mom

      September 4, 2012 at 9:37 am | Reply
    • 7001mkr

      Mr krm1007, you made my day. Had a long day with lot of hard work and now I am literally ROTFL at your joke! Thanks a lot! 🙂

      September 26, 2012 at 9:33 am | Reply
    • jfk

      Shut up paki. Stop your irrelevant gloating over your Taliban terrorists in a discussion about Asian islands.

      May 1, 2013 at 9:23 am | Reply
  4. yujjioi

    Chinese brain gets dangerous sick or becomes and dies in the abnormal head which is not common

    September 5, 2012 at 12:10 am | Reply
  5. LOOPY chink

    If China is proper, the world is the world of chaos becoming serious

    September 5, 2012 at 12:18 am | Reply
    • STUPID.R.A.C.I.S.T!!!


      September 7, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  6. aa

    could your guys please use ccp instead of china

    September 5, 2012 at 1:53 am | Reply
    • chopchop

      What's the different, its still China

      September 5, 2012 at 2:31 am | Reply
      • Deland

        Because Republic of China is China too.

        September 17, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
    • Beilaowai

      China and CCP and PRC are the same. Taiwan and ROC are the same. Please don't confuse a sovereign country which has a democratically elected government with a different sovereign country ruled by an oppressive authoritarian regime kept in power by lies, brute force and oppression of its citizens. Different countries, different worlds.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:07 am | Reply
    • Gokou

      China's China and Taiwan's Taiwan. Accept it. Majority of nations considers China as the true China and not Taiwan. I'm not pro China but just accept it that people calls Taiwan, Taiwan and not China.

      January 29, 2013 at 4:46 am | Reply
  7. chopchop

    China want war and nobody dare to step it up

    September 5, 2012 at 2:32 am | Reply
    • Patrick

      Such is to be expected from someone like you with your obvious limitations, chopchop. Remember the simple fact that China didn't invade Iraq back in 2003? We did and you that the Chinese want war? How ludicrous!

      September 5, 2012 at 2:57 am | Reply
      • krm1007©™

        Repeat after me, I am an idiot and it does not matte how many times I steal Patrick's name, I will still be an idiot.

        September 5, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
      • Gokou

        Lol yeah. That's why China's bullying small countries first. I doubt it can match US military might.

        January 29, 2013 at 4:47 am |
  8. TOMG


    September 5, 2012 at 11:44 am | Reply
  9. Tom

    Without discussing the territory history of China and WWII, this article is bias on what we hear every day from US media. China owns these islands for thousands of years alreay. I suggest you to read Chinese history first before write.

    September 5, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Reply
    • ManNinh

      what 's kind of the territory History of China you have??? I like to see & read it. But it needs to be real & correct to the history........thanks!

      September 6, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Reply
      • Chinapatriot


        September 6, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Peter

      Can you show an old map of China showing these island groups on the map?

      September 7, 2012 at 2:47 am | Reply
      • Tom

        If you can read Chinese, you can easily get this information from any Chinese history museum. Then, you will have your own judgement.

        September 7, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
      • Peter

        Then, China should take it to international court to dispute their case. Why people has to come to your museum to be convinced?

        September 8, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
      • cns

        Has the Chinese south China sea before 700 map, 500 diaoyutai map.

        September 30, 2012 at 5:32 am |
    • Tigresse

      The problem with your claim that "history books" show that these islands have belonged to China for thousands of years is that historians always write their histories with a bias, no matter the era, civilization or the culture. Those histories are published by the leaders of those cultures, and therefore, tend to portray the culture that sponsors it in a positive and sympathetic light.

      December 14, 2012 at 12:14 am | Reply
  10. diana

    poor American....you only know what US media tell you. you don't even know the world outside US. Be smart and if you do want to learn more, try to read and understand in another language. World is big and so is Asia. But US is not an Asian country.

    September 5, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
    • Peter

      poor Chinese ....you only know what CCP media tells you. you don't even know the world outside China. Be smart and if you do want to learn more, try to copy our products. World is big and so is South China Sea. But China is not a part of South China sea. So, go home and make a toy for my kid before she got ... really angry.

      September 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Reply
      • peeter

        hoho, i am afraid you are able to afford a toy if you continue like there... oh sorry you can still go to conquer wall street to rob some money back. so what is the next street?

        September 14, 2012 at 5:26 am |
      • peeter

        hoho, i am afraid you are not able to afford a toy if you continue like there... oh sorry then you can still go to conquer wall street to rob some money back. or what is the next street?

        September 14, 2012 at 5:27 am |
      • Maersk

        They have ole pictures showing you zucking a big black kwok.

        September 14, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
      • pt2012

        we can read US media. can you read CCP media, do you really know what the CCP media talks about? lol

        September 25, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Gokou

      Oh really? You can read? So you know freedom, democracy and such? I doubt it, you only know Mao Tse Tsung and every lies CCP tells you to read.

      January 29, 2013 at 4:50 am | Reply
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