TOKYO — The disputed islands and islets in Asia are, on the whole, an unimpressive bunch. Most are rocky, windswept outcroppings far from any mainland. One has a lighthouse but no people.
But these tiny territories, sweeping from southeast to northeast Asia, are fiercely contested among countries that are buoyed by nationalism and by a growing thirst for the natural resources off their shores. At a time when the United States has promised to play a greater role in Asia, some security experts say the territories represent the region’s greatest potential flash point aside from North Korea.
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.”
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.
“If someone enters your yard and told you he owns it, will you allow that?” Aquino said. “It’s not right to give away what is rightfully ours.”
Managing the territorial disputes has become a fraught issue for Asian leaders. One much-criticized move came Friday when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, in an apparent ploy to boost his low support ratings, traveled by helicopter for a 70-minute visit to the Dokdo (or Takeshima) islets, also claimed by Japan.
“Dokdo is genuinely our territory,” Lee said on the island, where he laid flowers in front of a monument commemorating Koreans who died defending the territory.
“Why did he visit there at a time when we need to consider issues from a broad viewpoint?” Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said soon after. “It is extremely regrettable.”
Security experts say the Japan-South Korea dispute has little chance of escalating into violence, because the two countries — Washington’s closest allies in Asia — are mostly cooperative economic partners, despite lingering animosities from Japan’s 35-year occupation.
But other areas in the region are more troubling, particularly those claimed by China. A recent report from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group described how China is patrolling the sea with “nine dragons,” a tangle of conflicting government agencies, many of them trying to increase their power and budget.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy tends to take a background role in sea disputes, the report said, allowing a greater role for civilian law enforcement or paramilitary agencies. An increasing number of rogue Chinese fishing vessels are also operating in contested areas, as seen in an April standoff between Beijing and Manila that started when Chinese fishermen were caught poaching near the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
Eventually, China won the standoff and the fishermen made off with their catch.
Washington has tried to stay neutral in the various disputes but has emphasized the importance of freedom of navigation. During a June meeting with Aquino, President Obama urged Asian countries to settle on a “strong set of international norms and rules governing maritime disputes in the region.”
Regional leaders, though, have failed to agree on any set of rules, and at a July foreign ministers’ meeting in Cambodia, conflicts about the South China Sea prompted the leaders to walk away without even a basic communique.
A recent Pentagon-commissioned proposal by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, pointed out that “stakes are growing” in the region because of China’s aggressive maritime activities.
The think tank’s proposal on U.S. strategy in Asia raised the possibility of basing a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier on the Australian coast, allowing the U.S. a second carrier strike group in the region.
But Australia’s defense minister quickly rejected the idea, and analysts in Australia suggested the country was unwilling to antagonize China, its largest trading partner.