Some things are worth fighting for. What about a few desert islands occupied mainly by birds, goats and moles? China and Japan seem to think so, the rest of the world is alarmed and a look at other territorial disputes around the globe shows that stranger things have happened. There are about 60 such conflicts simmering worldwide. Most will bubble along, unresolved but harmless, 400 years after the Peace of Westphalia established the notion of national sovereignty. Others are more dangerous.
China and Vietnam are accusing each other of escalating tensions over Chinese oil exploration in the South China Sea, with confrontations between ships near the Paracel Islands, which both countries claim. In November, China proclaimed an “air defense identification zone” over a set of islands 1,000 miles to the northeast in the East China Sea that China and Japan have claimed since at least the 19th century. (Taiwan stakes a claim, too.) On a visit to Beijing in December, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. doesn’t recognize the zone, and the U.S., Japan and South Korea flew military planes through it. President Barack Obama reinforced the point when he went to Japan in April and promised to defend the disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese and administered by Japan since 1972. Japan rejects the idea that a dispute over the islands even exists, and government policy prohibits negotiations that acknowledge China’s claim to them. China’s separate claim to a huge swath of the oil- and gas-rich waters of the South China Sea dates to 1947; there are now competing claims there by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. China is locked in a separate disagreement with India over the two countries’ land border.
A territorial dispute became a U.S. presidential election issue in 1960: Richard Nixon assailed John F. Kennedy for refusing to commit to a nuclear defense of Taiwan’s rights to the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, which were also claimed by China. Nothing much happened and Quemoy is now best known for the meat cleavers its craftsmen made from the artillery shells fired at the island. History shows that China has tended to avoid inflaming its territorial disputes; Communist Party leaders have settled 17 of China’s 23 disputes since 1949, sometimes receiving less than 50 percent of the land at issue. Other nations aren’t always so conciliatory. A 1998-2000 border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea killed as many as 70,000 people. Argentina and the U.K. fought a 74-day war over the Falkland Islands in 1982 and 913 people died. Some territorial battles are waged at the ballot box and in courts. The U.K.’s 200-year dispute with Spain over Gibraltar appeared near resolution in 2002 when the two countries agreed to joint sovereignty. The deal collapsed when all but 200 of the area’s 18,000 people voted to remain a part of Britain. There are five official territorial disputes between the U.S. and Canada, which share the world’s longest land border and seem inclined to disagree agreeably. Some disputes get ugly, then go away. Peru and Ecuador fought the monthlong Cenepa War in 1995 over a remote patch of the Amazon rainforest, killing about 40 people. After mediation by neighbors and the U.S., a deal was signed in 1998. Peru and Ecuador are now at peace.
With China expanding its military, Japan starting to shed its postwar pacifism, and energy resources at stake, some analysts see the East China Sea and South China Sea conflicts as threats to peace that summon comparisons to Europe before World War I and World War II. On the other hand, the countries involved have much to lose by fighting. China and Japan, the world’s second- and third-largest economies, had trade of $366 billion in 2012, and China is Japan’s biggest trading partner. There is always danger, though, of a miscalculation or mistake — two planes colliding in midair, for example — that could inflame longstanding enmity.
The Reference Shelf
- A data visualization by Bloomberg of the territorial tensions in the South China Sea.
- Analysis of China’s territorial disputes by M. Taylor Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- CIA Factbook list of territorial disputes worldwide.
- The Japanese Foreign Ministry makes its case for sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
- Delaware won a century-and-a-half border argument with Pennsylvania, but not until 1921.