At first glance, it seems to make little sense that China and U.S. allies in the Western Pacific would dredge up old fights over uninhabitable islands, provoking nationalist protests, diplomatic rifts and a threat of violent confrontation in a strategic maritime corridor.
The South China Sea and coastal passages from Malaysia to Russia are of vital economic interest to all who ply the shipping lanes used to ferry more than $1.2 trillion in goods annually between the United States and its Far East trading partners.
But for the past decade the U.S. has been distracted with wars in faraway Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving allies like Japan, South Korea and the Philippines on their own to face an increasingly assertive China staking claims to the islands and the natural resources around them.
As the United States recalibrates its foreign policy to recover its standing in East Asia, analysts say Washington must execute a delicate balancing act to nurture relations with China while preventing it from bullying weaker countries.
In the South China Sea, Beijing last month deployed a military garrison and administrative staff to bolster its claim to Scarborough Reef, a triangular atoll framed by China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Vietnamese officials complain that China last year sabotaged its oil exploration by cutting undersea cables. In April, Manila accused Beijing of blockading a key fishing ground to prevent the arrest of Chinese poachers. Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also assert sovereignty over some islets.
Since mid-August, Japan, China and South Korea have been ratcheting up tensions over less resource-rich islands in the East China Sea. All three nations are gearing up for elections and leadership changes this fall, encouraging politicians to posture as fierce defenders of national sovereignty.
The Japanese government said Monday that it will buy the privately owned islands it calls Senkaku, prompting China to send two patrol ships to safeguard the outcroppings known in China as Diaoyu. South Korea has also indulged in provocation, with President Lee Myung-bak staging a lightning visit to the islets in early August.
South Korea and Japan also dispute sovereignty over the Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan, and Tokyo has a long-running conflict with Russia over two islands of the Kuril chain.
While the rock piles themselves are of little value, any nation that can establish sovereignty has exclusive rights to the resources within a 200-mile radius, notes Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow for China studies at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Glaser sees the main risks to regional security coming from "accident and miscalculation," like the 2010 ramming of two Japanese coast guard vessels by a drunken Chinese fishing boat captain that set off the most tense standoff between the Asian rivals in years. She also pointed to China's attempts to intimidate smaller neighbors by frustrating trade, as when Beijing cut off exports of rare earths to Japan two years ago and quarantined Philippine fruit imports.
"With the challenges facing the United States and the rise of China, there is a sense that some new system is emerging," said Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Asia Society think tank. "Many of these conflicts that had been on ice are defrosting, and countries are pushing claims to test and explore the contours of the new power structure. When China challenges Japan, it is also challenging the U.S.-Japan alliance."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta have said during recent visits to East Asia that Washington won't take sides in territorial spats between longtime allies and the economic powerhouse of China. Instead, U.S. officials have urged the nations to work through Asian diplomatic alliances or the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. There have also been calls for plans for mutually exploring, extracting and protecting the coveted resources.
"The fishing reserves grow more valuable as other fish stocks along the coast are depleted. There's plenty of reason to have a region-wide regime" for coordinating fishing seasons and sharing in the take, said Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The United States can play an important role in helping the parties with technical assistance in resource management, but Washington is unlikely to be accepted as an impartial mediator because of statements by officials that appear to put the United States "on the side of everybody but China," Paal said.
He envisions a multilateral forum emerging under the guidance of a government far removed from the disputes, perhaps Australia or Norway, with expertise in good management of natural resources.
"The best that can be hoped for is a temporary solution," Paal said. "Nobody's going to be happy with that, but no agreements on sovereignty are going to be reached in such a turbulent era."
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Photo: Chinese nationalists in Chengdu, in the southern province of Sichuan, protest last month against Japanese claims to disputed islands in the East China Sea. Rival claims to tiny constellations of islands from the cold North Pacific to the tropical South China Sea have stirred old tensions and resentments throughout East Asia. Credit: Associated Press