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ONE reason China’s spectacular rise sometimes alarms its neighbours is that it is not a status quo power. From its inland, western borders to its eastern and southern seaboard, it claims territory it does not control.
In the west, China’s border dispute with India is more than a minor cartographic tiff. China claims an area of India that is three times the size of Switzerland, the state of Arunachal Pradesh.
Further west, China occupies Indian claimed territory next to Ladakh in Kashmir, an area called the Aksai Chin. China humiliated India in a brief, bloody war over the dispute in 1962. Since 1988, the two countries have put the dispute on the backburner and got on with developing commercial ties, despite occasional flare-ups.
More immediately dangerous is the stand-off between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu in Chinese.
Japan says they have always been its territory and admits no dispute, claiming also that China only started expressing an interest when it began to seem the area might be rich in oil and gas.
A new and much more dangerous phase of the dispute began in 2012 after Japan’s government nationalised three of the islands by buying them from their private owner.
China accused Japan of breaking an understanding not to change the islands’ status. Ever since, it has been challenging not just Japan’s claim to sovereignty over the islands, but its claim to control them, sending Chinese ships and planes to patrol them.
Raising the stakes is Japan’s alliance with America, which says that though it takes no position on who owns the islands, they are covered by its defence treaty with Japan, since it administers them.
Especially provocative to America and Japan was China’s unilateral announcement in November 2013 of an Air-defence Identification Zone, covering the islands.
The worry is less that big powers will deliberately go to war over these desolate little rocks, but that an accidental collision at sea or in the air might escalate unforeseeably.
Similar fears cloud disputes in the South China Sea, where the maritime claims in South-East Asia are even more complex, and, again, competition is made more intense by speculation about vast potential wealth in hydrocarbon resources.
Vietnam was incensed in May 2014 when China moved a massive oil-rig to drill for two months in what it claimed as its waters.
This was near the Paracel Islands, controlled by China since it evicted the former South Vietnamese from them in 1974.
To the south, China and Vietnam also claim the Spratly archipelago, as does Taiwan, whose claim in the sea mirrors China’s. But the Philippines also has a substantial claim. Malaysia and even tiny Brunei also have an interest.
But it is with Vietnam and the Philippines that China’s disputes are most active. The Philippines accuses China of salami-slicing tactics, stealthily expanding its presence in disputed waters. In 1995 it evicted the Philippines from Mischief Reef, and in 2012 from Scarborough Shoal.
This year it has tried to stop the Philippines from resupplying a small garrison it maintains on the Second Thomas Shoal, and appears to be building an airstrip on the Johnson South Reef.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea—UNCLOS—is one forum for tackling these disputes. But UNCLOS cannot rule over territorial disputes, just over the waters habitable islands are entitled to.
And China and Taiwan point to a map published in the 1940s, showing a big U-shaped nine-dashed line around the edge of the sea. That, they say, is historically all China’s. This has no basis in international law, and the Philippines, to China’s fury, is challenging it at an UNCLOS tribunal.
In fact China often fails to clarify whether its claims are based on the nine-dashed line, or on claims to islands, rocks and shoals.
That lack of clarity alarms not just its neighbours and rival claimants, but the United States, which says it has its own national interest in the freedom of navigation in a sea through which a huge chunk of global trade passes
Also alarming is that if these arguments over tiny specks in the sea become so unmanageable, what hope is there for resolving the really big issues? And the biggest of all is the status of Taiwan, still seen by China as part of its territory, but in practice independent since 1949.
For now, Taiwan and China have a thriving commercial relationship. But polls suggest that few in Taiwan hanker after unification with the mainland. And China’s rulers still insist that one day they will have to accept just that.