Another high-profile territorial dispute in the South China Sea – this time involving Beijing and Tokyo – has seen Sino-Japanese relations deteriorate to an all-time low after Japan bought the East China Sea islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, from their private owner, sparking anti-Japanese protests across China.
According to a Sept. 21 statement posted by China's Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei, on the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, "The current grim situation in China-Japan relations is entirely caused by Japan's announcement of its 'purchase' of the Diaoyu Islands. The responsibility rests totally with the Japanese side," Lei said.
Geography and Natural Resources of the Islands
Like the territorial disputes surrounding the Spratly Islands, Beijing's heated reaction – towards Tokyo's decision to nationalize the Diaoyu Islands – has to do with the fact that the waters surrounding Senkaku are sites of intensive hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation. Oil and natural gas are the coveted prizes for the energy-starved Chinese country.
From Tokyo's point of view, Beijing has ceded the islands to Japan by the Qing Dynasty of China in Article II of the May 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki. Though the islands were controlled by Washington as an occupying power between 1945 and 1972, Tokyo has since 1972 exercised administration over the islands. The Japanese allege that Taiwan and China only started claiming ownership of the islands in 1971, following a May 1969 United Nations report that a large oil and gas reserve may exist under the seabed near the islands.
Present Day Confrontations
Coastguard vessels from Japan and Taiwan fought with water cannons after dozens of Taiwanese boats escorted by patrol ships sailed into waters around Tokyo-controlled islands, the AFP reported Tuesday. Adding to the tensions, China's first aircraft carrier entered service Tuesday, with industry watchers commenting that "China is developing strike aircraft and support vessels which would help it become fully operational."
China-ASEAN South China Sea Dispute
Besides having to grapple with its on-going issues with Japan, China too needs to soothe the ruffled feathers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). China was embroiled in territorial disputes earlier this year with several of the ASEAN members surrounding the Spratly Islands.
In April this year, the Philippines got into a row with China when it discovered Chinese fishing boats were spotted on the coast of the Scarborough Shoal, an outcropping of rocks in the South China Sea which both countries claim territory over. President Benigno Aquino said in a statement on July 2, 2012, that the Philippines could place a request to the United States to deploy US P3C Orion spy planes over the South China Sea to help it better police the region.
Meanwhile, before its spate with the Philippines could be resolved, state-backed CNOOC announced June 25 it would open nine offshore blocks in the South China Sea for joint cooperation with foreign companies. Seven of the offshore blocks are sited in the Zhongjianan Basin, while two are located in areas covering the Wan'an Basin and the Nanweixi Basin. Vietnam lays claim to all of these offshore blocks as well. The dispute over the nine offshore blocks, likely in part linked to previous tensions between the two countries, led to Vietnam's publication of a June 30 statement that "condemns CNOOC's action". China responded with a concerted launch of four combat-ready patrol ships to the disputed area on July 1, 2012
No oil company has responded publicly to CNOOC's offer, and both of the countries have not yet reached an amicable resolution on the latest dispute.
The two incidents escalated into the watershed event in ASEAN's history, the failure to issue a joint statement at the end of the 45th AMM.
Going Forward Into 4Q 2012
In an opinion statement published Monday, Micheal Richardson, a visiting fellow for the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, noted that "the potential commercial and strategic value of the South China Sea is far greater for Beijing than its relatively small claim against Japan in the East China Sea."
"As China's economic and military strength grows, it can be expected to assert its claims in the maritime center of Southeast Asia more insistently," Richardson said. "It would be a different operating environment for Southeast Asia – one that was more China-centric and with less room to maneuver and seek a countervailing presence from outside powers," Richardson added.
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