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A storm has been brewing for decades in the South China Sea, and it has nothing to do with the weather.
Instead, it's a virtual typhoon of competing claims over tiny, uninhabited island chains that ring the South China Sea and reach even farther north. They all have one thing in common: China has claimed control of them.
During a trip to Asia this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped into the middle of the latest row — this one between China and the Philippines over a small archipelago of wind- and wave-swept rocks and coral called the Scarborough Shoal (or the Huangyan Islands, as China prefers to call them).
In the past month or so, China has literally roped off access to Scarborough by stretching a line across the horseshoe-shaped lagoon to prevent fishermen from the Philippines, located just 120 miles to the east, from entering.
And this week, Japan announced it had struck a deal with private owners to buy the five Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, whose sovereignty China has never recognized. Beijing was quick to blast the move as "illegal and invalid."
Robert Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor and author of the upcoming book The Revenge of Geography, says China's claims are rooted in economic and national prestige.
"It's a historic belief that is very similar to that which motivated the United States in the Caribbean basin throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries," he adds.
Claims, Counterclaims And The 'Cow's Tongue'
China sees the islands, and more broadly control over the adjacent seas, as a historical right, dovetailing with its newly reclaimed role of East Asia's dominant power. Also at stake: a strategic waterway with massive oil and gas reserves that potentially could help fuel China's energy-hungry industries and towns.
Speaking in Indonesia ahead of her arrival in Beijing, Clinton reiterated the U.S. position that the various island disputes — which have put China at odds with nearly every one of its maritime neighbors — should be resolved "collaboratively ... without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without the use of force."
But coercion, intimidation, threats and even occasional violence have all been part of these disputes, many dating to the end of World War II.
The claims and counterclaims can be confusing. It's China vs. the Philippines and Taiwan for control of Scarborough Shoal; Taiwan also claims the Pratas Islands and (along with Vietnam) the Paracel Islands and the Macclesfield Bank, which the Philippines also claims; the Spratly Islands are claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and even the tiny sultanate of Brunei. These disputes involve an area known as the "cow's tongue," which is roughly equivalent to the entire South China Sea.
Farther north, Beijing and Tokyo are at loggerheads over the Senkaku, or Diaoyu Islands, as the Chinese call them.
Twice in the past 40 years, gunfire has been exchanged between naval forces of China and Vietnam over the Spratly and Paracel islands, where China has set up a military outpost. Last month, a ship full of activists from Hong Kong arrived at the Senkaku islands with the intent of occupying them, but they were rebuffed by the Japanese Coast Guard.
In a similarly provocative move, a group of lawmakers from Taipei traveled to the Spratly archipelago this week to observe Taiwan's coast guard conduct a live-fire exercise.
Resetting The Regional Pecking Order
"I think what makes this situation particularly intractable is that China's economic and strategic interests broadly coincide in the South China Sea," says John Ciorciari, a professor who specializes in international affairs at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
The economic interests could be enormous. Estimates vary wildly, but one Chinese study has put the potential oil reserves in the South China Sea at 213 billion barrels — roughly 80 percent of Saudi Arabia's known reserves. The natural gas reserves in the region are said to be five times those of the U.S.
But strategic interests and simple nationalism play an equally important role in the various disputes. China sees itself as the dominant power in the region, much the same way that the United States has been the de facto leader of the Western Hemisphere, a role that Washington codified in the Monroe Doctrine, first espoused by President James Monroe in 1823.
From Beijing's perspective, "this is part of China's natural sphere of influence and has been for thousands of years," says Christopher Johnson, the head of China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"It was only the aberration of the last 150 years or so — the so-called period of humiliation — that caused that to change," he says. "Now, China wants to reset to what it sees as the natural pecking order and balance in the region."
That reset could take time, and although Beijing is not averse to some aggressive muscle-flexing, it can afford to wait, Ciorciari says.
"I think China's interest is at a maximum winning in these disputes and at a minimum forestalling defeat," he says. "Because China and its neighbors expect that [Beijing] is going to have more power relative to its neighbors in the future, China ... is happy to defer resolution of the issue until a date when it has the ability to resolve it on more favorable terms."
Kaplan, the Stratfor analyst, agrees: "These islands have become the focus of media attention because all of these countries for the first time, really, are able to project naval power beyond their own landmasses into the sea."
"In the '50s, '60s and early '70s, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and China were all deeply involved internally — with internal civil wars or rebellions, or the Cultural Revolution in China's case. It's only in the past decade or so that there's been sufficient national consolidation so that they can project power outward."
But Beijing is suspicious of Washington's role as the military benefactor for many of the nations that have a stake in the outcome of the region-wide islands dispute. The U.S. has strong military ties with Japan, the Philippines and China's archnemesis, Taiwan. It also enjoys good relations with Malaysia and a gradually warming relationship with Vietnam.
China also questions Washington's claim of neutrality. Earlier this week, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said, essentially, Beijing has heard it all before.
"I hope [the U.S.] will keep its promise and do more to help stability and not the opposite," Hong Lei said.
Besides keeping a wary eye on Chinese ambitions, the U.S. has an interest in making sure international maritime access to the region goes unimpeded, something China has also insisted it is committed to doing.
Gulliver And The Lilliputians
No one expects any of the island disputes to break out into a shooting war anytime soon. Instead, the issue is likely to remain on the backburner for now, "a bronze medalist in the news behind whatever goes on in the greater Middle East and the European debt crisis," as Kaplan puts it.
Ciorciari likens the standoff between China and the various regional claimants to Gulliver and the Lilliputians.
The Lilliputians, he says, "need some time to tie China into a set of relationships that they hope will give them at least the chance of sharing the [oil and gas] proceeds through joint arrangements rather than have China exercise control over the whole of the South China Sea."
But the Lilliputians also cannot afford to cede ground. For them, as much as China, it's a question of national sovereignty. Besides the potential for oil and gas revenues, there's also the more immediate concern over fishing rights.
Even so, the bluster on all sides over these barren pieces of rock always has the potential to grow from a Cold War-style standoff to one that could go hot, says Johnson.
"All it takes is the actions of a couple of cowboys," he says. "The building nationalism on all sides in this dispute means that the actions of local ship captains or maritime surveillance forces could easily upset the balance and suddenly handcuff their respective national leaderships."
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