Recently, a dispute between China and Japan sparked fierce protests from both sides that ended with arrests, tear gas and torched cars—all because of an uninhabited island chain. In fact, the islands are little more than large rocks, home to nothing of note save for a single lighthouse.
Whether you call them the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands, both countries’ claims to the island aren’t simply a matter of national pride, although public opinion on both sides has shown an unwillingness to concede the issue, according to the New York Times. The territory provides access to fishing and shipping, and may hold oil reserves.
Looking at a map, geography can seem static and borders well-defined. In reality, the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute reflects that borders are still flexible and there isn’t a complete consensus on all of the lines drawn between nations.
The temperature on the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute is rising, but conflict over these other island chains has been boiling over for some time:
1. Kuril Islands — above
Japan is not only embroiled in a dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands. It’s also part of an ongoing clash with Russia over the Kuril Islands.
The Kuril Islands, a chain of four land masses in the northern Pacific between Russia and Japan, were last in the news in 2010, when then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev visited them to reinforce his country’s claim.
Russia took control of the islands in the aftermath of World War II. In 1951, Japan signed a treaty renouncing “all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands,” as explained by BBC News. But since Japan never recognized the four disputed islands as part of the Kuril chain and Russia was not a signatory on the treaty, the issue remained unresolved.
Like the Senkaku Islands, the Kuril chain has natural wealth, including oil and gas resources as well as abundant fishing grounds. The islands are also something of a tourist draw.
Photo Credit: Dr. Igor Smolyar, NOAA/NODC (http://www.photolib.noaa.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
2. Dokdo/Takeshima Islands
The Dokdo/Taskeshima islands dispute is a debate over sovereignty between South Korea and Japan. The islands lie approximately the same distance between the two Asian countries, and each has a historic claim to what are known as the Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan.
Last month, South Korean prime minister Lee Myung-bak visited the islands, which contain large natural gas deposits and fishing grounds, as BBC News noted on the occasion. The episode led Japan to summon the South Korean ambassador and recall its envoy, according to the report.
3. Spratly Islands
Of all the island chains currently disputed in Asia, the Spratly Islands might have the most confusing history.
An archipelago of more than 100 islands, the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are claimed separately by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Laos and Brunei. Nearly each country has some kind of military presence within this chain of islands and atolls. The area is thought to be resource-rich, particularly with oil and natural gas deposits.
With so many different countries claiming the islands, controversy flares up regularly among the different players. Last year, China and Vietnam conducted simultaneous naval drills in the disputed islands, with both sides seeming to reinforce their claims.
4. Paracel Islands
The Paracel Islands are yet another disputed chain in the South China Sea. Composed of over 30 tiny islands, the Paracels have been claimed and occupied by China since 1974, when the People’s Republic engaged in an armed conflict with South Vietnam to take control of the islands.
Vietnam, however, never gave up its claim to the islands. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have made claims to the islands, according to a BBC News report on Chinese efforts to step up military efforts to assert its sovereignty over the disputed territories.
5. Falkland Islands
Not every modern-day sovereignty dispute takes place in the Pacific. Located near the southern tip of South America, controversy over the governance of the Falklands hit its peak in 1982 with the Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom. Thousands of mines left by the Argentine military still lurk in the waters surrounding the islands to this day.
Although diplomatic relations between the two countries have, of course, normalized since the dispute 30 years ago, the Falklands can still be a sore point between both sides. Just this year, a legal decision over oil exploration around the Falklands drew heated responses, with Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner describing the United Kingdom’s claim as a relic of the colonial past.
A vote scheduled for early 2013, however, will give the 3,000 residents of the Falkland Islands the right to self-determination, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
Although these disputes may have claims from both sides dating back centuries, these long-standing issues aren’t irreconcilable. In the 20th century, the United States had its share of territorial disputes with other nations. The Department of the Interior lists 30 islands or atolls once claimed by both the United States and a foreign power. In all cases, the matters were settled, and no remaining claims are still outstanding.
By Talal Al-Khatib, Discovery Channel