Potential Hot Spots: Little Islands do Mighty Disputes Make

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Items About Areas That Could Break Out Into War

January 6, 2006: In recent months a number of obscure territorial disputed between various East Asian powers have been heating up;

@ Spratly Islands. The Spratlys are a group of some 100 islets, atolls, and reefs that total only about 5 square kilometers of land, but sprawl across some 410,000 square kilometers of the South China Sea. Set amid some of the world's most productive fishing grounds, the islands are believed to have enormous oil and gas reserves. Several nations have overlapping claims on the group. About 45 of the islands are currently occupied by small numbers of military personnel from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Brunei has established a fishing zone in the area, but has made no territorial claims. From time to time there have been small-scale confrontations and the occasional clash between some of these countries over the ownership of the islands. In November of 2002 most of these countries signed the "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea," a vague agreement that has eased tensions is not actually legally binding. In March of 2005, the national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam signed a joint accord to cooperate in exploring for oil in the islands. Called Taiping Island by the Taiwanese, Ita Aba is one of the largest of the group, at about 120 acres (489,600 sq. meters). It has been in Taiwanese hands since the mid-1950s, and has largely been used as a way station for fishermen. The island is also claimed by the Vietnamese, who call it Thai Binh. Taiwan has long maintained a small military presence on the island, and has recently begun building an airfield. Protests have been lodged by Vietnam, which controls the largest group of islands, and protests are expected from the Philippines as well, since it also claims the island. The Vietnamese, who have recently refurbished an old South Vietnamese airstrip on Big Spratly Island, have protested the action, citing it as a violation of the 2002 declaration. As Taiwan is not a signatory, and is likely to ignore the protest. China, which claims the entire archipelago, has not been heard from yet, and is likely either to keep quiet or quietly back Taiwan.

@ The Liancourt Rocks. The Liancourt Rocks are known as the Dokto Islands to the Korans and the Takeshima Islands to the Japanese. They comprise two rocky islets and about 32 rocky outcrops with a total "land" area of 43 acres and lie in the Sea of Japan (known as the East Sea to the Koreans), some 140 kilometers off Korea and about the same distance from Japan. The islands are occupied by South Korea, which maintains a small coast guard station there and a lighthouse. Dokto sits in the middle of a rich fishing ground, and thus its ownership determines who gets to harvest the fish. The situation is complicated by the extreme hostility Koreans traditionally feel toward Japan. Recent assertions by Japanese leaders - including their ambassador to South Korea - that the island is Japanese (and continued Japanese insensitivity about its colonial role in Korea) has led to periodic massive street protests across Korea since February of 2005. In March the South Korean Air Force scrambled four F-5 fighters to intercept a Cessna from a Japanese newspaper that was approaching the islands. In June, South Korean and Japanese patrol boats played chicken around the islands, and recently the Chief of Staff of the South Korean Air Force, Gen. Kim Sung Il, personally flew an F-15K fighter out to the islands to assert Korean sovereignty. Japan has not yet responded to this move, but is expected to send several aircraft shortly.

@ The Diaoyu/Senkakus Island. Japan has a similar dispute with China over a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, known to China and Taiwan as the Diaoyu islands and to Japan as the Senkakus. As with Dokto, the area is rich in fish, and, as with the Spratlys, is reputed to have extensive natural gas reserves. Since 2001 the Japanese Coast Guard has detained over a dozen Taiwanese fishing boats in the area, releasing them only after stiff fines. This has led to massive demonstrations by Taiwanese fishermen, including, in one instance, a massive flotilla of over 60 fishing boats that brazenly "violated" the Japanese claim. In addition, the Taiwanese government, normally very reluctant to criticize Japan (a potential ally against China), dispatched its defense minister and a delegation of members of parliament aboard two missile frigates on a tour of the disputed area.

 

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