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. Andrey

    All of this disputes are more than half-century old and are dragging on with some minor event happening now and then: so why so much attention now? US "free" media is doing its best to make big deal of it only as a part of anti-China campaign it is running lately. That is essentially what this "US pivot to Asia" is about: US has got scared sheetless of China moving forward not only economically but politically too, becoming a real superpowerto be reconed with! And when US is scared it gets agressive. Nothing new here!

    September 7, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  2. beynn

    Thing is , We've made China what they are today, financially by continuing to send our manufacturing to them , which is no different than outsourcing, the big corporations control this .. if the U.S. decided to double tax anything that took away an American job we'd be sitting pretty and there would be no dispute over any those islands .

    September 10, 2012 at 11:22 am | Reply
    • peeter

      oh jaja, you started the globalization on very behalf of your own to exploit the cheap labor across the world. and now the scale is moving just a bit, and you began to cry out who the hell started it? ask your brilliant wall street brokers where all the money went

      September 14, 2012 at 5:31 am | Reply
  3. allthingsgeography1

    Reblogged this on All Things Geography.

    September 10, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  4. darmatter

    the bullying of china and aggression in asia meaning to show her power ang nobody can touch to her,,, and no any weapon can tie

    September 14, 2012 at 7:14 am | Reply
  5. Tom


    Go to Yale-Asian study center and its musium, you will then find what it says. Thus, you don't need to go to China to read Chinese.

    September 14, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Reply
  6. lee

    We have a long history, disputed areas, we are all based on the historical. In 1840, China was influenced by western force aggression, we are to find their own things, not? Besides, Chinese bully who, without killing him on fishermen, arrest fishermen, no purchase island etc.. You don't know the history of Asia, really ashamed to talk nonsense!

    September 15, 2012 at 1:53 am | Reply
  7. Goodideas

    Dear Editor,

    I'm pretty sure the photo is of Vietnam Navy. It's probably misleading to most readers that this is Chinese Navy soldiers. Just a reminder.


    September 15, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
    • FredLam


      You are right. But the editor does not seem to care.

      September 16, 2012 at 12:48 am | Reply
  8. Dat Nguyen

    China is always playing the FAKE, So many things They showed to us is UNREAL!!!

    September 16, 2012 at 2:54 am | Reply
  9. Manny

    The US did not donate the former Hamilton-Class US Coast Guard Cutter that was acquired by the Philippine Government last May of this year ,it was purchased for more than $10 million and was renamed BRP Gregorio Del Pilar.

    September 16, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Reply
  10. Manny

    the Chinese is claiming all territories in southeast asia,an absurd claim that i dont think any country would likely do,they are running out of markets for their fake products maybe!

    September 16, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Reply
  11. Anti-CNN Again

    Time to restart anti-CNN again! To hell with American imperialism!

    September 16, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Reply
    • Gokou

      To hell with Chinese Imperial Communism!

      January 29, 2013 at 4:59 am | Reply
  12. Mark Villafranca

    China is a part of Biblical Prophecy. and this ambitious and greedy country...will fall apart! AMERICA will destroy you..and whole world will destroy your country dam you Chinese

    September 17, 2012 at 1:00 am | Reply
    • guo


      September 18, 2012 at 4:28 am | Reply
      • ...


        September 25, 2012 at 2:16 am |
      • Charlestix

        wh0cd11463 zyban over the counter

        August 29, 2017 at 11:35 am |
    • US KING

      all the whole world live in darkness,only Ameica can light the dark world. please saving us, America, Amen!

      September 23, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Reply
    • Gokou

      China's doing what Napoleon and Hitler did a long time ago. But China doesn't realize that aggression and invasion of other countries has a limit. And that limit is the USA. IF US and its allies join forces and stops China, China can't do a thing about it.

      January 29, 2013 at 5:01 am | Reply
      • Really?

        LOL, what Hitler and Stalin did, is what the US is doing, not China. i.e. mass spying, multiple invasions, killing millions of innocents ect... No wonder the US is so behind on education, can't see what their own country's doing, only pointing fingers at others with no real knowledge of history, funny and sad at the same time.

        November 26, 2013 at 10:21 am |
  13. Mr. Wu

    Fareed doesn't know much of anything. Why do we continue to read this crap.

    September 17, 2012 at 8:58 am | Reply
  14. obamadick

    What the helll of united states?

    THe most weird country in the world who keep licking the other country resource!

    Even middle east interference is natural resource reason for all...
    They never become a peace country, seems I saw hilary bicth keep turn around looking for better dick, wonder if this is the reason clinton fxck monica lew... 😀

    Now they want to interfere Asia country, what the fxck of panetta...

    September 17, 2012 at 9:24 am | Reply
  15. ALee

    This article mainly concerns about the economic issue, nothing about the history of those islands.

    September 17, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  16. M Peterson

    Oh and one final word, there was a war a very short and vicious one fought for a small island called the Falklands. I doubt China wants to start an economic war. And these civil demonstrations going on can backfire once they start putting new leadership in place and the economy starts a downturn with the potential of Asian Spring that wants democracy once again. Be warned, not wise to put fuel onto a fire with all these demonstrations, they have a tendency to keep going in revolutions like the middle east. Once people got wind of freedom, they are expressing themselves once again in new ways not always good for everyone.

    September 17, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Reply
  17. jokejoke

    US has invaded so many countries that people even lose count, and people in US are talking about China bully other country, what a joke.

    A country with only 200 years history talking about history, what a joke.

    You are just a big joke, but you just didn't realize.

    September 18, 2012 at 2:51 am | Reply
    • Gokou

      Because in history the almighty Chinese Empire became the sleeping old giant and got bullied by the west? Lol regardless on what your communist government tells you... China is really bullying other countries. He's just afraid that US might take it seriously and tries to defend these small countries.

      January 29, 2013 at 5:04 am | Reply
  18. guo

    china,come on

    September 18, 2012 at 4:21 am | Reply
  19. jay

    so we are repositioning 60% of our navy to surround china. all good. but where to get the $$$? at present, after paying your mom/pops social security, medicare, we have no money left, so we print new money to spend on military. how long would this last? is there really a money printing scheme that you don't have to "earn" and get $$$? Bernie Madoff said yes and had the same system but he got multiple life terms... what about US military?

    September 18, 2012 at 4:27 am | Reply
    • Kenny

      Oh, c'mon Jay. Why can we keep on printing more dollars to pay off our debts ?. Chinese love it with an insanity demand for our US bonds. Better value than holding their own currency any day.

      September 24, 2012 at 8:59 am | Reply
      • pt2012

        keep printing, let's see what will be happen.

        September 25, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
  20. Kenny

    China will eventually fall on its own aggression, and disintegrated into many smaller states. May be it means to be that way.

    September 24, 2012 at 8:53 am | Reply
    • UHHH

      That IS what's happening in the US. Red states vs blue states. And since you're wishing it on another country, may karma find you and bite you.

      September 25, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Reply
    • Gokou

      That's true. History has proven that with Napoleon and Hitler.

      January 29, 2013 at 5:06 am | Reply
  21. alloydflanagan

    You know, this is one of those problems that may go away with patience. What's the elevation above sea level of these islands? A little more global warming, they won't be islands any more, so what's to fight about?

    September 26, 2012 at 6:54 am | Reply
  22. Susan

    China are verry very dangerous .

    September 27, 2012 at 9:11 am | Reply
  23. cao

    There is not clear mentioned on paracel islands in this, the disputed island between Vietnam & China why ?

    The true story is

    China did invation the island on 1974 by military forces, pulling out vietnamese people, killed a dozens vietnamese navy forces, ocuppied the islands, building military bases there until now, Vietnam could not take it back becase of could not fight against Chinise forces . China simply roped the islands and they did alot of media lie to the world about the island and nearby water areas which they called south china sea. China did not has any island in the east sea ( called south china sea) untill they did the invation on 1974. they are going to to the same way with Spratlys islands.

    Please write the true story about china in roder to let people in the world know what have happened and what is going to be happened with the islands & surrounding water areas. the islands in the east sea ( Paracel & Spratlys) were belonging to Vietnam before 19th century until 1974 and it will be belonging to vietnam in the near future.

    October 3, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Reply
    • Gokou

      They did that to the Scarborough Shoal. Forced occupation and invasion.

      January 29, 2013 at 5:07 am | Reply
  24. NanaBowman

    Taiwan is part of China only if China is democratic and under the name of Republic of China.

    October 9, 2012 at 10:05 am | Reply
    • Fan

      No a bad idea. I don't even care about whether it is called ROC or PRC or whatever. But the thing is that the US want two "Chinas", which suits for their profit. Do you think the US really want a unified and democratic China? No, because that China is more challenging to the US. I think that PRC and ROC should sign up a mutual agreement on: the PRC will not using military power to solve conflicts with ROC and the ROC will not support any hestile actions the other conuntries did to PRC.

      April 26, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Reply
  25. NanaBowman

    Which Vietnam CAO is referring to? Back in 1974 American GIs were still fighting for the freedom of South Vietnam against North Vietnam which China was backing of. Ironically Americans led by President Nixon were trying to open China's iron doors and eventually successful to do so. On the other hand North Vietnam "unified" and "liberated" South Vietnam in 1975 and renamed the capitol from Saigon to Ho Chi Ming City. Ho Chi Ming
    was a communist and Maoist. Does anyone remember The Fall Of Saigon. In order to know why the world is now, we must know why the world has been.

    October 9, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Reply
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