Whose Islands Are They Anyway?

Senkaku Islands.

Spratly Archipelago

By Gregory Taylor The battle over the South China Sea Islands has erupted again.  It seems this happens every few years so one country can put a contending country on notice that there is still an unresolved issue of ownership. Since April 2012, there has been a rekindling of these antediluvian disputes as to who owns several islands claimed by the surrounding countries of Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, China, and to a lesser degree Brunei and Malaysia. The conflict is usually initiated by the country that feels its sovereignty has been most recently impinged. The most recent flare up involves Japan, the Philippines, and China.  Earlier this year, a group of Filipino fisherman decided to occupy an island in the Spratly archipelago that both China and the Philippines claim. This occupation was reputed to be for the exercise of commercial fishing rights, but everyone knew this was about sovereignty –and wars have been fought for less. The immediate stand off brought into question the strength of the alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines that dates back to WWII. The Philippines seemed to be gambling that the United States would come to its military aid if China pushes the issue. And the Chinese gamble would be that the United States was too preoccupied with its war in two Middle Eastern countries to involve itself in a war with the likes and size of China. Four months later, Japan staked its claim to another set of disputed Islands known as the Senkaku islands to the Japanese and the Daoyutai islands to the Chinese. This was accomplished by a dubious purchase from the Kurihara family who the Japanese refer to as “private owners.”  This outraged the Chinese government and with some irony the Taiwanese government as well. After all, the two Chinese governments have identical claims to said islands.  The question is whether two wealthy economic powers would risk a war over inconsequential islands, with mineral and oil capacity that are speculative at best. Would they risk destabilizing the entire region over principle? History suggests it may well depend on who feels the most aggrieved. One only needs to look to Falkland/Malvinas islands in 1982.  Claimed by the British from 1690 and the Argentines in the 1800s, the islands lie 300 miles off the coast of Argentine and 8,000 miles from Britain. Possessing no intrinsic value with an inhospitable environment, few believed these two countries would fight a war over a desolate piece of land.  Surely, cooler heads would prevail and sort this interruption out diplomatically. Well, cooler heads did not prevail and the principle of sovereignty was decided by war. So, will Japan and China fight a battle over these islands?  Will China and the Philippines go to war over principle?  There is too much for everyone to lose. This isn’t the Falkland/Malvinas crisis where most people saw no global or regional consequence for that war, only the flexing of muscle. The world economy stands to lose too much money if Japan, China, and the Philippines choose war. Accordingly, despite public protests and saber rattling for home consumption, real back-channel negotiations will take place, which for the foreseeable future will put this issue to bed, and the east will be as it was before.
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