One way to cement a claim to a disputed territory — and to anger others who think it's theirs — is to build on it. That's what China's been doing in the South China Sea, where it's constructed vast features including runways and facilities to house weapons. It's a sign of growing Chinese assertiveness under President Xi Jinping at a time when President Donald Trump is signaling a lesser role overseas for the U.S. That assertiveness has been felt from the Himalayas to Asia's seas, where China's territorial claims have long been a source of contention and, now and again, threaten to boil over.
After tensions eased in the second half of 2017, a U.S. Navy vessel operating in the South China Sea near Scarborough Shoal — seized by China from the Philippines in 2012 — provoked an angry reaction in China in January, showing how disputes can quickly flare up. Xi listed as a key achievement of his first term the progress made building outposts in the South China Sea — a clear signal that he means to stand firm. China claims more than 80 percent of the waters and has stepped up its military presence as well as constructing artificial islands. Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan claim parts of the same maritime area, a thriving fishing zone through which more than $5 trillion of trade passes each year. In a case brought by the Philippines, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled in 2016 that China's claims had no legal basis. China dismissed the ruling, saying the tribunal had no jurisdiction. As tensions eased in 2017, China agreed to discuss a code of conduct for the South China Sea, but it will be non-binding and won’t cover territorial claims. One thousand miles to the northeast, in the East China Sea, China is in dispute with Japan over century-old claims to a set of islands — called the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China — that have been administered by Japan since 1972. The U.S., the longtime guarantor of freedom of navigation in Asia’s waters, has toned down its public criticism of China, with Trump — a harsh critic as a presidential candidate — even offering to mediate over the South China Sea barely a year after accusing China of disrespecting America by constructing artificial features there. China is also in dispute with India over territory along their Himalayan border — they went to war over it in 1962 and nearly came to blows in 2017.
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. But Xi’s foreign policy vision represents a shift from the “lay low” doctrine of late leader Deng Xiaoping, who urged China’s chiefs to “hide your brightness and bide your time.” Following that guidance in the late 1980s, China preferred to avoid getting enmeshed in international affairs. Now, Xi talks about a third era in China’s long recovery from its “century of humiliation” at the hands of colonial powers like Japan and the U.K. The country “stood up” under Mao Zedong and became rich under Deng, he said. Under Xi, it would become strong.
With China expanding its military (Xi has demanded a force “ready to win wars”), 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 about $300 billion in 2016, and China is Japan’s biggest trading partner. There is always a 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.
- Another one on the arms buildup in Asia.
- Decoding the South China Sea jargon.
- A QuickTake Q&A on the China-India border dispute.
- 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.
First published Jan. 12, 2014
To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Grant Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org