David and Goliath in the South China Sea
The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the South China Sea – the respective Japanese and Chinese names for the islands – are jagged and inhospitable rocks, unsustainable for human existence. Its last inhabitants fled to Japan after World War II, and the rocks have since been forgotten in every realm but politics. Tensions arose in September 2012 when Tokyo officially purchased the islands from their private Japanese owner. The Chinese government responded by a drastically increasing the number of surveillance vessels in the islands’ territorial waters, sparking outrage from the Japanese government and demonstrating how far China was willing to go to claim the islands as their own.
The controversy, however, does not end there. China claims that there are even more islands that fall under their jurisdiction. The Spratly Islands, an archipelago of reefs, islets, atolls, and cays, and the Paracel Islands are approximately an astounding 1,000 miles and 1,500 miles away from mainland China, respectively. Yet Beijing asserts these islands too are Chinese. China’s claims of ownership over faraway islands and waters have gained the country notoriety over the last few years, with outlandishly claiming territory as far as 2,000 miles away, including land and water considered to be part of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Japan.
Japanese nationalists have likened the conflict to the Falklands War, in which Argentine forces invaded the Falklands/Malvinas Islands in 1982; a territory then considered a remote colony of the United Kingdom. Argentina, which had long claimed the islands were rightfully theirs, was attempting to divert attention from human rights abuses and economic issues at home, and, conversely, in the U.K., Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s approval rating was tanking. Both the British and Argentine governments were in much need of a distraction to take the public’s mind off of more grave matters.
Is China in an analogous situation?
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rise to power coincided with Tokyo’s purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which incited mass anti-Japanese riots in China. As his first political challenge, along with his newfound leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, Mr. Xi had no choice but to take a stern stance against the Japanese, escalating the conflict. This antagonistic approach, including the dispatch of surveillance and fishery ships, and, most especially, the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone, can be likened to the actions taken by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher so many years ago: it is the kind of political decision a leader makes when backed into a corner. The people were screaming for someone’s head, and naturally, Mr. Xi ensured it was not his.
Making matters worse is China skyrocketing military spending – which has risen to $130 billion a year in 2012 from $30 billion a decade earlier – fueling an unspoken arms race in the East. In doing so, China threatens the safety of neighboring countries, especially Japan. However, Japan is not backing down: despite denying the existence of a navy, the Japanese have commissioned at least 3 aircraft carriers, exactly for what purpose remains unclear.
Akin to a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, the Chinese and its adversaries are toe-to-toe on the seas, cannons perpetually at the ready. The conquest is not only of territory and influence, but also of control over economic borders. In the age of imperialism, those extensions of economic power were colonies. For this era, the United Nations calls them exclusive economic zones: states in possession of special rights on exploration and use of resources, specifically marine resources in this case. China’s claim on uninhabited land far from the mainland coast is not a straightforward attempt at “land-grabbing.” No, owning the small islands scattered around the Pacific does nothing to increase territorial power but rather, supports the acquisition of a larger, more influential exclusive economic zone.
China is overstepping its boundaries once again, claiming land that is not theirs to claim waters they should not control. But as the largest economic, political, and military power of the region, countries like Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia remain weak against their common foe. Unless David finds his special slingshot, Goliath stands to win this round.
- Kathy Dimaya