Maritime Disputes in Asia: Flashpoint for Regional Conflict?

International relations is riddled with many “flashpoints” – areas where tensions can lead to conflict or actions can escalate to violence. One such area is the East and South China Seas, where countries like Brunei, China, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam are embroiled in disputes over a smattering of islands rich with high-stakes potential.

Maritime Disputes in the East and South China Seas are nothing new. Territorial claims, exchanges of incendiary and defensive political remarks, lawsuits, and unpleasant encounters among coast guards, navies and fishermen from different nations, have been going on for many years – and for good reason.

What’s at stake? Ownership of the territories is part of national pride in many cases, like that of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands which Japan and China have both been laying claim to for over a century. Natural resources also abound in the contested regions, with billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas to be tapped in the South China Sea – desperately needed resources for fledging economies like the Philippines’, or a superpower like China aiming for greater growth. Aside from oil and gas reserves, Exclusive Economic Zones (“EEZ”) in the waters around the islands are also at play, which have implications for both small and commercial-scale fishing.

It is also notable that the region holds waterways that are vital to shipping. $5.3 trillion of world trade goes through the South China Sea annually, making Freedom of Navigation another facet of this complex issue, and bringing in other players like the United States, even if they are not amongst the claimant nations. The United States is also linked to the disputes, by virtue of their long-standing military alliances and commitments to countries like Japan and the Philippines, and their recent policy of “pivot to Asia,” characterized by renewed interest in diplomatic and military activity in the region.

October featured many news and developments on this issue. Just weeks after news broke out of China’s land reclamation projects on disputed islands and the subsequent international condemnation of these actions, it has been reported this month that China has already completed the construction of a couple of lighthouses in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea – courting a new set of protests and opposition.

Earlier this month, unnamed US officials have been cited as saying the United States was “considering” sending over warships to the contested territories to show it does not recognize China’s claims, and that the plans will be moving forward in the next few weeks. In the days following this news, however, officials declined to confirm or deny the possibility, while Beijing monitored the situation closely and called on stakeholders not to engage in “provocative actions.”

More recent news, however, sheds light on these developments. The US has reportedly been in communication with its regional allies about intentions to send in naval “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea, concerning not only Beijing but a few other nations who fear China may use the patrols as an excuse to militarize further in order to defend their interests. Others, however, see the United States’ actions as contributing to regional stability and in accordance with navigation in international waters.

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