Why we need to care about a conflict over tiny islands in the Pacific

There are hundreds of tiny islands that dot the South China Sea and, while many are uninhabited, all are claimed by one nation or another. Many are claimed by more than one player in the region, and that's where the problem comes in.


  1. Today's news

    Tensions between China and Japan have ratcheted up another notch after Japan decided to buy a small number of disputed islands from the family that owned them. The Japanese government says it made the purchase to keep the islands out of the hands of Japanese nationalists.

  2. The players

    Every nation that borders the South China Sea makes claims that at least one other country disputes. The major players in the current drama are China, the Philippines, Japan and the United States.
  3. Causes of the dispute

    All the classic causes of human conflict are in play. There's history that dates back before World War II and, of course, economic interests play a starring role.
    Wikipedia has a great explanation of the what's at stake:

    "It is an extremely significant body of water in a geopolitical sense. It is the second most used sea lane in the world, while in terms of world annual merchant fleet tonnage, over 50 percent passes through the Strait of Malacca, the Sunda Strait, and the Lombok Strait. Over 10 million barrels of crude oil a day are shipped through the Strait of Malacca, where there are regular reports of piracy, but much less frequently than before the mid-20th century.

    The region has proven oil reserves of around 7.7 billion barrels, with an estimate of 28 billion barrels in total. Natural gas reserves are estimated to total around 266 trillion cubic feet."

  4. Why now?

    The New York Times quotes sources that offer at least one possibility that may explain why this long-simmering dispute is coming to the fore right now: 

    "The clash between China and Japan over the islands comes as the Chinese government nears the start of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition at a Communist Party Congress expected to be held within weeks.

    Some Western analysts say they believe the strong public defense of China’s territorial claims may be a means of deflecting attention from an unusually rocky succession process while abetting the strong nationalist feelings in China against Japan."

  5. Why we care

    A prestigious think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, offers a very straightforward explanation:
    "Given the growing importance of the U.S.-China relationship, and the Asia-Pacific region more generally, to the global economy, the United States has a major interest in preventing any one of the various disputes in the South China Sea from escalating militarily."
  6. In a nutshell, the United States cares because of concerns about China's growing influence and what that could mean for the future; economic interests, including keeping shipping lanes free and exploitation of oil and gas resources; an obligation to defend allies and their interests that could draw the U.S. deep into the conflict.
    -Jason Fields, World Editor, Digital First Media