This is the latest maritime confrontation to occur between China and Japan over the islands, which lie south and southeast respectively from mainland Japan and are home to 26,000 people. Trouble between the countries usually comes in the East China Sea, but unlike the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands, the poacher’s targets lie in undisputed Japanese territory.
‘At the moment the situation in the China Seas is tense, but stable,’ says Bill Hayton, whose recent book, South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, examines the region’s flashpoints. ‘The main thing worrying people is that China is creating artificial islands in the South China Sea that it has occupied for the last few years.’
Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Brunei, Korea and Japan are all claiming these islands. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries have the right to claim EEZs 200 nautical miles from land. ‘The situation would be simple if there weren’t any islands in the sea,’ adds Hayton. ‘Countries have realised those who control the islands control the resources.’
In order to protect their claimed rights, countries in the region are involved in a small naval arms race. ‘China is well ahead of the other countries. It is constructing a 10,000-ton coastguard ship,’ says Hayton. Meanwhile, Japan is working with other countries to protect their fisheries in the South China Seas.
‘Japan is supplying coastguard ships to Vietnam, but these are only about 500 tons,’ he says. ‘China has the advantage in that it can field more ships with greater power that can menace other countries. Sometimes coastguard ships ram fishing boats. These rivalries could get quite serious as the fleets expand,’ warns Hayton.
This story was published in the January 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine