Senkaku Islands Dispute: How China Could Spark the Next Big War

ByPeter McKenzie

Recently, it seems that the disputes in the South China Sea have passed out of the public interest (the most famous of said disputes being disagreements such as the one between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, or the disagreement between the Philippines and various other nations over the Spratly and Paracel islands), and that the public eye has refocused on other issues. One of the reasons this issue has passed from public interest is most certainly the conflict in North Korea. However, it is important that we remain vigilant with disputes in the South China Sea, as they herald a volatile flashpoint for regional conflict — where a large incident could provoke war on an international scale.

The South China Sea has long been a battleground, even more so in the modern era as a result of the discovery of deposits of natural gas, oil, minerals and the profusion of fishing areas. It is also home to a large portion of the world's international trade, with 50% of all international shipping thought to travel through the area. This abundance and potential profit has caused much conflict between the nations that border the ocean.

China, often the aggressor, claims the largest percentage of the ocean — an area stretching hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan. China's claims are repeated by Taiwan, whose reasoning for their claim is that the island territory has had a long history with the various islands in the South China Sea and thus has the right to control them. Vietnam disagrees with both nation's claims, saying that they have better rights to island chains such as the Paracels and the Spratlys than either of the other two, and points out that neither China or Taiwan had claimed the islands until the 1940s. Vietnam has effectively ruled these two dominant island chains from the 17thcentury. The final major participant in the debate are the Philippines, who have declared that since they are so geographically close to the area, they should have control over the islands within. Malaysia also lays claims to a few of the islands within the Spratlys, invoking the United Nation's Convention of the Laws of the Sea and saying that the islands lie within the economic exclusion zones set out by the Convention in 1982.

Recently, the Chinese navy has been reported in a number of attacks on fishing vessels that they accuse of trespassing in their waters. Another report has emerged which reveals that the Chinese have dispatched a small flotilla to their southern-most claimed territory, James Shoal, which lies only 80km off the main coast of Malaysia. Finally, China's recent conflicts with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have spurred China's president, Xi Jinping, to command its vast military to prepare for war.

It is commonly acknowledged that a single blunder or incident now could further incite either China or the coalition of Asian states that oppose it to declare war on one another. However, the strange thing is that this is without a doubt the opposite of what is in their collective interests. China's booming economy is largely a result of trade relations with the greater South East Asian region, and the various nations that fall within that area rely greatly upon their business with China to keep them going. Above all, the flourishing shipping routes that criss-cross the South China Sea bring wealth to everyone in the region, and they must not be disturbed. A war would endanger regional wealth and prosperity and leads many to wonder why China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan or the Philippines would risk it. 

One thing is for sure; a war in this region would greatly affect the international community as well as Asia. If we wish to avoid it we must encourage the fractious powers in the region to settle down and peacefully resolve their disputes.