The territorial disputes involve nearly a dozen countries in at least three major seas, and they have set off a chaotic crisscross of conflict in some of the world’s most trafficked shipping lanes. The disputes are not all connected, but analysts say that several of Asia’s key countries — China, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines — have in recent months followed a similar pattern, turning old historical squabbles into national priorities, escalating tensions and raising the chances of a small-scale armed conflict.
The countries are driven to claim these far-flung offshore territories in part because of their growing need for the oil and gas reserves in the waters around them. Japan fears prolonged energy shortages as it turns from nuclear power, and China, already responsible for one-fifth of the world’s energy consumption, is racing to increase its share as its economy modernizes.
“Energy resources are increasingly a critical issue here,” said Rory Medcalf, director of international security at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. “Particularly from a Chinese and Japanese point of view, there’s a new sense of the need for energy security. None of these countries want to categorically give up claims to territory where there could be large hydrocarbon deposits.”
The countries are also driven by fierce, though sometimes small, nationalist movements in their own back yards. The nationalism has been intensified by social media, some analysts say, particularly in China, where hundreds of millions of Internet users can share their opinions and public sentiment is harder than ever to ignore. Countries such as South Korea and China are set for leadership changes this year, making government officials wary of backing off claims and appearing weak.
“We’ve seen over history countries go to war over territory — area that seems to be meaningless, but it’s the soil of the country,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior researcher and a Northeast Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation. “Even if it would appear illogical for countries to risk conflagration over rocks. . . that is what is occurring.”
The most notable current disputes involve Japan and South Korea, China and Japan, and China and a host of southeast Asian countries, most vocally the Philippines and Vietnam.
China, with its increased military spending and naval might, is often pinpointed by foreign leaders as the regional bully, pushing its boundaries and intimidating smaller neighbors. But other countries have responded with shows of force of their own. Several southeast Asian countries have tightened alliances with Washington and conducted joint military drills. Japan realigned its Self-Defense Forces with the aim to better defend disputed waters. In July, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III asked his country’s congress to approve a massive military upgrade involving new planes and combat helicopters that could be used to defend contested areas in the South China Sea.