By Gregory K. Taylor
The battle over the South China Sea Islands has erupted again. It seems this happens every few years in order for one country to put another contending country on notice that there is still an unresolved issue of ownership. This action is usually taken by the country that feels its sovereignty has been most recently impinged. Since April of 2012 there has been a rekindling of these antediluvian disputes as to who has ownership to several islands claimed by the surrounding countries of Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, China, and to a lesser degree Brunei and Malaysia.
The most recent flare up involves the countries of Japan, the Philippines, and China. Earlier this year, a group of Filipino fisherman decided to occupy an island in the Spratly archipelago that both China and the Philippines claim. This occupation was reputed to be for the exercise of commercial fishing rights, but everyone knew this was about sovereignty--and wars have been fought over less. The immediate stand off brought into question the strength of the alliance between the United States and the Philippines that date back to WWII.
The Philippines seemed to be gambling that the United States would come to its military aid if the Chinese pushed the issue forcefully. And the Chinese gamble would be that the United States was too preoccupied with its war on terror in two Middle Eastern countries to involve itself in a war with the likes and size of China.
Four months later, Japan staked its claim to another set of disputed Islands known as the Senkaku islands to the Japanese and the Daoyutai islands to the Chinese. This was accomplished by a dubious purchase from the Kurihara family who the Japanese refer to as the “private owners.” This outraged the Chinese government and with some perceptible irony the Taiwanese government as well. After all, the two Chinese governments proffer, for acceptance, identical claims to said islands. The question is would two wealthy economic powers risk a war over inconsequential islands whose mineral and oil capacity are speculative at best? Would they risk destabilizing the entire region over principle?
History suggests it may well depend on who feels the most aggrieved. One only needs to look to the Falkland/Malvinas islands for an example. Claimed by the British from 1690 and the Argentines in the 1800s the islands lie 300 miles off the coast of Argentine and 8,000 miles from Britain. Possessing no intrinsic value with an inhospitable environment few believed these two contemporary societies would fight a war over a desolate piece of land. Surely, cooler heads would prevail and sort this interruption out diplomatically. Well, cooler heads did not prevail and the principle of sovereignty decided on war.
So, will Japan and China fight a battle over these islands? Will China and the Philippines go to war over principle. There is too much for everyone to lose. This isn't the 1982 Falkland/Malvinas crisis where most people saw no global or regional consequence for that war, but more of a curiosity and flexing of muscle. There is just too much money to lose for the world economy if Japan, China, and the Philippines choose war. Accordingly, public protestations and sabre-rattling for home consumption while real back-channel negotiations are taking place will, for the foreseeable future, put this issue to bed and the east will be as it was before.
Gregory K. Taylor is currently in Taiwan