The South China Sea Island Disputes

The South China Sea Islands Disputes Name of student Name of institution The South China Sea Island Disputes Introduction China’s rise to the status of a global economic power has been viewed with both skepticism and hope by her neighbors. Skepticism by countries wary of China’s history of aggression as far as territorial disputes are concerned, and hope by countries wishing to benefit from trade partnerships with China. However, it is China’s activities in both the south and East China seas that have got her neighbors worrying. In the 1970s and 80s, China was concerned with marking her terrestrial borders with countries that surround her.
It was in the process of defining her borders that China’s military power was felt. There were border skirmishes between China and several of her neighbors including India and Russia. Having secured her terrestrial borders, China’s attention shifted to her maritime territory and its security. She embarked on the acquisition of islands within the East and South China Sea. It is this expansion mission into the sea that has seen many disputes arise between China and her neighbors who lay claim to the same islands. This expansion strategy has seen disputes erupt between China and her neighbors who lay claim to islands she has acquired.
As early as April 2012, the Philippine and Chinese militaries nearly faced off over an island known as Scarborough Reef. In the East China Sea, China has had a long dispute with Japan and Taiwan over the ownership of a group of islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. As late as 2012, Japan and China had a standoff over these islands. Although both countries have tried to diffuse tensions over this issue, the threat of conflict remains real especially with the involvement of the United States. Thesis Statement Recent diplomatic spats between China and her neighbors have increased tensions in the South East Asia regions.

Such standoffs make the threat of conflict in the region all too real especially with the involvement of external actors such as the United States. However, it should not be lost on scholars that China’s claim to various islands in both the South and East China Sea is the major contributor to these tensions. This is evidenced by the recent standoffs between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku group of islands in the East China Sea, as well as tensions with the Philippines over the Scarborough Reef and Spratly islands in the East China Sea.
This paper offers a background to the disputes between China and her neighbors over these islands, and particularly Diaoyu/Senkaku. It will further investigate the domestic factors influencing China’s assertiveness in both the South and East China Sea and her claim to these islands as well. Finally, the paper will attempt to paint some probable outcomes of these conflicts while at the same time offering possible solutions. Background to the Disputes Diaoyu/Senkaku Dispute. A look at the world map will not clearly show the location of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. This shows how tiny these islands are.
They consist of five volcanic islands and three outcroppings located 400 km west of the Japanese island of Okinawa and approximately 170 km northeast of the republic of Taiwan (Lohmeyer, 2008). Although they are administered by Japan, there is no human habitation in these islands. Imperial China is said to have been the rightful owner of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands before 1895. In fact, the name Diaoyu in Mandarin stands for ‘fishing ground’ or ‘fishing platform’ (Lohmeyer, 2008). The Japanese name, senkaku, means ‘sharp point’, and was given to the islands by the 19th century Japanese explorer, Kuroiwa.
However, China lost the islands as well as Taiwan to Japan in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895 (O’Shea, 2012). The islands remained in Japanese hands till the end of World War II when they fell under the United States mandate, as did the whole of Japan after losing the war. Additionally, the ownership of Taiwan reverted back to China at the end of the Second World War but not these islands. It is important to note that Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China lay claim to the islands on the basis of history. In other words, both claim that the islands have historically been part of their territory until they were captured by Japan in 1895.
However, none of these countries made an issue of the islands ownership until oil deposits were discovered in the East China Sea in 1968. By the time the U. S returned the ownership of the islands as well as Okinawa to Japan, Tensions were already building up (O’Shea, 2012). Japan lays claim to the islands based on the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) principle of Continuous Peaceful Administration. Although the dispute over the islands intensified after the U. S handed them over to Japan in 1972 (Beukel, 2011), it was not until the 1990s that this dispute gained prominence.
According to O’Shea (2012), Taiwan and China were angered by media reports which revealed that a Japanese right wing group had constructed a lighthouse in Diaoyu/Senkaku, and that the group had applied to the Japanese Coast Guard to recognize it as a government property. The protests that ensued in both China and Taiwan served to whip up nationalist sentiments against Japan. China responded two years later by enacting a maritime law called ‘the law of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial sea and Contiguous Zone’.
It is article two of this law that rattled Japan and Taiwan since it states that the People’s Republic’s territory included “…Taiwan and all islands appertaining thereto including the Diaoyu islands” (Lohmeyer, 2008). Despite Japan’s diplomatic protests, China has not changed this part of the law. The issue of the lighthouse recognition surfaced again in 1996 with the Japanese government giving it a serious thought. Taiwanese and Chinese activities reacted by setting sail for the islands. Attempts by Japanese coast guards to arrest the activities resulted to the drowning of some of the activists.
This incident forced Japan to allow the activists to land on the islands. Japan also shelved the lighthouse recognition issue (O’Shea, 2012). In September 2010, the dispute over the islands erupted with news of a collision between two Japanese coast guard ships and a Chinese fishing trawler (O’Shea, 2012). The crew of the trawler was apprehended by the Japanese coast guard and later released, save for the captain. When China learned that the Japanese authorities planned to charge the captain in court, it suspended the exportation of rare earth to Japan among other severe measures (Beukel, 2011).
The situation was eased by the release of the Chinese captain. The situation is not helped by Tokyo’s move to nationalize some of the islands in September, 2012 which was condemned by China. China even conducted naval exercises in the waters near the islands, a move Japan termed as provocative. Other island disputes involving China. According to a report by the International Crisis Group (2012), the threat of war in the South China Sea is becoming real with each passing day. This is as a result of China’s growing assertiveness in staking her claim to various islands in that part of the world.
These disputes pit china with countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam (Buszynski, 2012). The disputes arise from the fact that the islands claimed by China are said to be within the Exclusive Economic Zones of the above mentioned countries. Additionally, there are reports of oil and natural gas deposits having been discovered in the waters surrounding many of these islands. These reports precipitate the disputes further. Although maritime disputes exist between China and her South China Sea neighbors, it is Vietnam and the Philippines that have shown resolve in defense of their claims.
The international Crisis Group (2012) reports that Vietnam and China have twice gone to war over Chinese occupation of islands which Vietnam says are within her Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The first war took place in 1974 when China occupied the Paracel islands. Although Vietnam is said to have lost this war, she did not hesitate to engage her gigantic neighbor in another war in 1988. This was as a result of China’s occupation of the Spratly islands. As late as 2011, there were tensions between the two countries over China’s naval violations of Vietnamese waters.
In order to counter China’s aggressive moves, Vietnam has embarked on modernization of its military and forging of closer ties with the U. S, china’s military rival in the Asia-pacific region. Resolve by the Philippines to resist China’s occupation of islands within Philippines EEZ was witnessed in April 2012 when the two countries were involved in both military and diplomatic standoffs. The international Crisis Group (2012) reports that this diplomatic crisis was occasioned by Chinese naval deterrence of Philippine naval patrols from apprehending Chinese fishermen in the Scarborough islands.
Obviously, the fishing activities by the Chinese were illegal, and China did not have to respond as forcefully as she did. Furthermore, the Philippines, together with Malaysia, have disputed China’s claim to the Spratly archipelago (Buszynski, 2012). With the Philippines and Vietnam showing more resolve in their disputes with China, the prospects of peace in the region dwindle with each passing day. Domestic Factors Influencing China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea is influenced by various domestic factors.
They include Chinese nationalism, the need to secure energy resources, local economic interests, competing law enforcement agencies, and the ineffectual coordination of various government actors. Ineffectual coordination of various government departments by the central authority is made difficult by the number of departments within the government. These departments are huge in number and have, on various occasions, overstepped their mandate. The International Crisis Group (2012) reports that some of these departments have assumed the role of the foreign affairs ministry.
A good example would be the way the Bureau of Fisheries boats have been used to guard the waters around the disputed islands. The promotion of tourism abroad should be done through the ministry of foreign affairs, but this has not been the case. This task is undertaken by the National Tourism Administration which goes as far as marketing tourism in disputed islands (Crisis Group, 2012). Obviously, this points to weaknesses within the ministry of foreign affairs and the factional divisions within the Chinese Communist Party.
Apart from ineffectual coordination in government departments, there is competition among law enforcement agencies in China. These competing interests and the agencies’ uncoordinated activities have served to heighten tensions in the South China Sea. While the China Marine Surveillance is charged with patrolling the South China Sea, the Bureau of Fisheries Administration also assumes this role. It is the latter agency that has been involved in many of the disputes involving China and her neighbors. Patrols of China’s waters should be left to her naval forces.
Diaoyu/Senkaku became a major issue in the Sino-Japanese relations after the discovery of oil resources in the waters around the islands in 1968. Therefore, it would be correct to mention that the major driving factor for China’s assertiveness over this dispute is domestic energy needs. Buszynski (2012) reports that China people became the second largest consumer of oil in the world in 2009. By the year 2030, China will most probably be the overall largest consumer of oil in the world. This energy need is driven by its industries.
It would, therefore, be expected that the People’s Republic would aggressively assert its claim to the South Asia Sea Islands which have been reported to contain large deposits of hydrocarbons. These oil reserves are estimated to be in billions of barrels. There are also natural gas deposits underneath the seabed near Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Another domestic factor that has been cited as influencing China’s assertive attitude in the South China Sea is Chinese nationalism. Beukel (2011) observes that there has always been resentment for Japan among the Chinese public.
This resentment stems from the atrocities committed against the Chinese by the Japanese between 1895 and the Second World War. Therefore, any hostility between China and Japan whips up more nationalist sentiments among the Chinese public. Analysts have also pointed out the fact that the Chinese leadership has at times whipped up nationalist sentiments as a way of promoting patriotism (Buszynski, 2012). Local economic interests have also contributed to the tensions between China and her South China Sea neighbors.
The International Crisis Group (2012) reports that the southernmost Chinese provinces of Hainan and Guangdong directly contribute to the assertive behavior witnessed from China in the recent past. These provinces have bypassed the central government in their actions against China’s neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines. In other words, the provinces seek to perform better than others economically. How China is Likely to resolve these Disputes China’s activities in the South China Sea have angered many of her south East Asia neighbors. The latest altercations in the South China Sea have heightened tensions in the region.
However, the dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands presents a delicate situation since the United States plays a pivotal role in the defenses of many nations in the South China Sea region. Beukel (2011) observes that Sino-Japanese relations are quite complex because both countries are strong partners. It is encouraging to note that while the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute has existed, it has not broken the ties between the two nations. However, as long as the United States keeps on getting dragged in the South China Sea on the side of one disputants, China’s position is likely to harden.
Disputes between China and her neighbors such as the Philippines and the Vietnam can easily be solved through fora like the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, the situation is precipitated by the standoffs between the disputants. Furthermore, the situation is likely to be precipitated by the military build ups in the region. Conclusion China’s activities in the South China Sea have been viewed with wariness by her South East Asia neighbors. The long standing dispute over the long Diaoyu/Senkaku islands has been at the center of attention of the Sino-Japanese relations.
The frequent flare ups in this region have been blamed on China’s strategy to expand its Exclusive Economic Zone. There are several domestic factors driving China’s quest for a larger share of the South China Sea. These include heightened Chinese nationalism, lack of coordination of the various Chinese government departments, and competing interests among the Chinese law enforcement agencies. Additionally, China’s domestic energy needs as well as local economic interests serve to heighten tensions in the South China Sea.
There have been various speculations as to the directions that these disputes will take. However, these disputes can be resolved through regional fora such as the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN. The situation will, however, be escalated by grand standings and continued military build ups. References Beukel, E. (2011). Popular Nationalism in China and the Sino-Japanese Relationship: The Conflict in the East China Sea: An Introductory Study. Copenhagen: Danish Institute of International Studies, DIIS. Buszynski, L. (2012).
The South China: Oil, Maritime Claims, and U. S. -China Strategic Rivalry. The Washington Quarterly, 35 (2), 139-156. International Crisis Group (2012). Stirring Up the South China Sea (I). Brussels: Author. International Crisis Group (2012). Stirring Up the South China Sea (II): Regional Responses. Brussels: Author. Lohmeyer, M. (2008). The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands Dispute: Questions of Sovereignty and Suggestion for Resolving the Dispute. Canterbury: Author. O’Shea, P. (2012). Sovereignty and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Territorial Dispute. Stockholm: EIJS, Stockholm School of Economics.

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