Filipino soldier patrols on one of the Spratly Islands, 11 May 2015 (Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP)

Filipino soldier on one of the Spratly Islands, 11 May 2015 (Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP)

This article is part of a News-Decoder series of “decoders” that explain crucial background to big issues. For more decoders, click here.

By Pauline Bock

Islets, reefs and shoals in a vast stretch of sea almost twice the size of the Mediterranean may be insignificant in size, but they are potential flash points between two of the world’s most powerful military forces.

No one paid much attention to the forlorn territories spread across the East and South China Seas until the second half of the 20th century. But now no fewer than 10 Asian countries stake conflicting claims to at least some of the area, which is rich in fish.

China is engaged in building activity on many of the islands, which are located in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and may hold vast reserves of oil and gas.

Two years ago China declared an air identification zone around islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by both Japan and Taiwan. That set off alarm bells around the region and also in Washington, which is a military ally of both Tokyo and Taipei.

Likewise, a complicated mix of overlapping claims to territories in the South China Sea pits nine nations against each other, with China the target of much of the region’s ire.

With no agreed way of resolving the disputes and growing interest in the islands for their economic and security value, the region poses some of the world’s thorniest diplomatic problems and fearful military risks.

The disputes involve a very small amount of land compared to the vast size of the East and South China Seas, which extend from Japan in the northeast to Southeast Asia in the south.

East China Sea

The main dispute between China and Japan is over an archipelago with five uninhabited islands and three barren rocks between those two countries and Taiwan. Controlled by Japan, they lie east of mainland China and southwest of the Japanese island of Okinawa.

In a measure of the depth of disagreement, China and Japan do not agree on the archipelago’s name: Japan calls it Senkaku, China calls it Diaoyu.

Japan says that in 1895 it laid claim to the islands and that China and Taiwan began to show an interest in the islands only in the 1970s when oil was discovered in the area.

East China Sea (Wikimedia Commons)

East China Sea (Wikimedia Commons)

China says the Diaoyu islands have always been part of its territories and were used as fishing grounds in the distant past by the province of Taiwan, which declared independence from mainland China after its civil war but which is still claimed by Beijing.

Taiwan similarly lays claim to the islands.

Despite covering a land area of merely seven square kilometers — almost nothing in a sea of 1.25 million square kilometers — the islands matter. They are home to rich fishing grounds as well as oil and gas resources, and they are close to important shipping lanes. Maritime trade going through the region is worth almost $7 trillion per year.

The elephant in the room is the United States, which since World War Two has been bound by a military treaty to defend Japan in the event of armed conflict.

U.S. bases on Okinawa make up more than half of the U.S. military presence in the region. U.S. President Barack Obama has said that the bilateral treaty applies to the Senkaku. And while Washington has not taken a side in the dispute, it has made clear that it intends to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.

When China declared its air defense identification zone in late 2013, the United States promptly sent military aircraft through it. The movement of Chinese and U.S. military assets through the region raises the stakes in the dispute, which was not resolved during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the United States.

South China Sea

In the South China Sea, nine countries have overlapping claims to parts of two archipelagos, the Spratly Islands between Vietnam and the Philippines, and the Paracel Islands off the southern coast of China. Like the Senkaku/Diaoyu, the islands in the South China Sea are largely uninhabited and are near major fishing grounds and trade routes.

The countries are Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.

The Paracel Islands are either under Chinese occupation or controlled by Taiwan.

The 750 reefs, islets, atolls and islands of the Spratlys, covering only four square kilometers of land spread over 425,000 square kilometers of of sea, fall under much more complicated control. China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all occupy some islands in the area — and claim others they don’t control.

Who claims what?

China has marked its claims with a “nine-dash line” that skirts other countries’ coasts and which includes most of the South China Sea. It says the Paracels and the Spratlys were ancient Chinese territories. The Scarborough Shoal, an island east of the Philippines, is claimed by China too.

Taiwan, which historically was part of China, claims the Paracels and the Spratlys for the same reasons. Vietnam claims the Paracels and the Spratlys, saying it has documents proving it has ruled both since the 17th century.

The Philippines, a close U.S. ally, claims the Spratlys, mainly on the basis of geographic proximity. Like China, it also claims the Scarborough Shoal, 100 miles west of its coasts.

Brunei claims two islands in the South China Sea, currently controlled by Malaysia and Vietnam. 

Malaysia claims the southern Spratlys that are close to its coasts.

Risk of conflict

Increased activity in the South China sea, particularly by China, has raised tensions and rung alarm bells in Washington.

China recently dredged some reefs in the Spratlys to build artificial islands, where analysts say airstrips, helipads and communication equipment have been spotted.

On another reef, China has built two buildings they say are lighthouses.

Under international law, territorial waters extend up to 12 nautical miles from a country’s coast. The United States, backed by the Philippines, has said it is considering sending ships through the 12-mile zone around China’s new constructions, a move that Beijing says would violate its territorial waters.

Recent attempts by the ASEAN regional group to resolve rising tensions between the Philippines and China have been unsuccessful.

The Philippines wants the United Nations to arbitrate in the dispute, but China has said it would not recognize the proposed court’s decision.

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