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China protests continue over island dispute with Japan

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2012-09-18

Thousands of Chinese protesters angry about Japan's claims to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands continued their protests Tuesday, with the unrest threatening to undermine bilateral trade relations and fuelling nationalism in the region.

China was bracing for a new wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations this week, with several Japanese plants suspending their operations in that country and beefed-up security around the Japanese embassy in Beijing. The street protests have followed a diplomatic row over disputed islands in the East China Sea and once more revealed the fierce rivalries that continue to smoulder in the region.


The islands, roughly located between Okinawa and Taiwan, are controlled by Tokyo, which calls them the Senkaku Islands. However, Beijing calls them the Diaoyu Islands and claims they are part of its historical territory. The uninhabited islets are only the latest focus of international tensions in East Asia, where many territorial disputes remain a headache for diplomats, international organizations, as well as cartographers.

As is the case with the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, many of the maritime territories contested by two or more countries have switched hands as a result of war and have the potential to revive deeply entrenched animosities. For example, The Pratas Islands, also called Dongsha Islands, in the South China Sea are claimed by both Taiwan and China.

Taiwan currently controls the Pratas, but China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Communist-run China thus considers the Pratas its own.

Competing names are a common feature of territorial disputes, and it extends from tiny islands to large expanses of water. Recently, China and Taiwan joined causes when they both rejected a unilateral move by the Philippines to rename the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea. In an another ironic turn, arch-foes North and South Korea have similarly lobbied maritime officials to rename the Sea of Japan as the East Sea.

The islands at the source of diplomatic wrangling in East Asia are not just mostly uninhabited, but altogether incapable of maintaining self-sustainable populations. In one of the most extreme examples, the disputed Socotra Rock in the East China Sea, which is claimed by South Korea and China, lies beneath sea level and is little more than a shipping hazard.

Exclusive economic zones (EEZ)

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines an exclusive economic zone as the area where a coastal state has rights to explore, exploit, conserve and manage living and non-living natural resources. The area extends to no more than 200 nautical miles from the baselines of the coast.

Indeed, the international tussles are not over the land itself, but what lies below the surface. Establishing ownership of rocks in the middle sea is a way to both affirm and vastly increase a country's so-called exclusive economic zones (EEZ), or a sea zone where a state has the exclusive right to exploit and extract natural resources.

The EEZ that extend from disputed islands can be exploited for fisheries. For example, the Scarborough Shoal and its surrounding area -- which is claimed by China, the Philippines and Taiwan -- are rich fishing grounds. Many Chinese fishermen have been arrested there by the Philippine navy over the years, with the latest incident registered only as far back as April 2012.

But more importantly, the disputed territories hold potentially huge reserves of oil and natural gas.

Chinese and foreign estimates put untapped oil reserves in the East China Sea at 100 to 160 billion barrels of oil, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Estimates for the South China Sea vary from 28 to 213 billion barrels of potential oil reserves.

The speculation that the Paracel and Spratley Islands in the South China Sea could be a vast and untapped source of oil has fueled tensions between the multiple states claiming ownership over the islands. The Paracel Islands are claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, while the Spratley Islands have no less than five contending owners: Brunei, China, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Date created : 2012-09-18


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