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The South China Sea Island Disputes
China’s rise to the status of a global economic power has been viewed with both skepticism and hope by her neighbors. Skepticism by countries wary of China’s history of aggression as far as territorial disputes are concerned, and hope by countries wishing to benefit from trade partnerships with China. However, it is China’s activities in both the south and East China seas that have got her neighbors worrying. In the 1970s and 80s, China was concerned with marking her terrestrial borders with countries that surround her. It was in the process of defining her borders that China’s military power was felt. There were border skirmishes between China and several of her neighbors including India and Russia. Having secured her terrestrial borders, China’s attention shifted to her maritime territory and its security. She embarked on the acquisition of islands within the East and South China Sea. It is this expansion mission into the sea that has seen many disputes arise between China and her neighbors who lay claim to the same islands. This expansion strategy has seen disputes erupt between China and her neighbors who lay claim to islands she has acquired. As early as April 2012, the Philippine and Chinese militaries nearly faced off over an island known as Scarborough Reef. In the East China Sea, China has had a long dispute with Japan and Taiwan over the ownership of a group of islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. As late as 2012, Japan and China had a standoff over these islands. Although both countries have tried to diffuse tensions over this issue, the threat of conflict remains real especially with the involvement of the United States.
Recent diplomatic spats between China and her neighbors have increased tensions in the South East Asia regions. Such standoffs make the threat of conflict in the region all too real especially with the involvement of external actors such as the United States. However, it should not be lost on scholars that China’s claim to various islands in both the South and East China Sea is the major contributor to these tensions. This is evidenced by the recent standoffs between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku group of islands in the East China Sea, as well as tensions with the Philippines over the Scarborough Reef and Spratly islands in the East China Sea. This paper offers a background to the disputes between China and her neighbors over these islands, and particularly Diaoyu/Senkaku. It will further investigate the domestic factors influencing China’s assertiveness in both the South and East China Sea and her claim to these islands as well. Finally, the paper will attempt to paint some probable outcomes of these conflicts while at the same time offering possible solutions. Background to the Disputes
A look at the world map will not clearly show the location of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. This shows how tiny these islands are. They consist of five volcanic islands and three outcroppings located 400 km west of the Japanese island of Okinawa and approximately 170 km northeast of the republic of Taiwan (Lohmeyer, 2008). Although they are administered by Japan, there is no human habitation in these islands. Imperial China is said to have been the rightful owner of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands before 1895. In fact, the name Diaoyu in Mandarin stands for ‘fishing ground’ or ‘fishing platform’ (Lohmeyer, 2008). The Japanese name, senkaku, means ‘sharp point’, and was given to the islands by the 19th century Japanese explorer, Kuroiwa. However, China lost the islands as well as Taiwan to Japan in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895 (O’Shea, 2012). The islands remained in Japanese hands till the end of World War II when they fell under the United States mandate, as did the whole of Japan after...