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.
Pictured: Last month, Japanese police officers arrested activists holding Chinese and Taiwanese flags who landed on Uotsuri Island, one of the islands of Senkaku (in Japanese), which is known as Diaoyu in Chinese.Masataka Morita/AP