* Asia, eastern Mediterranean, Arctic all see disputes
* Assertive new powers eye undersea resources
* Washington struggles to handle rising tensions
By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent
WASHINGTON, Oct 1 Small and occupied largely by
seabirds, goats and a unique indigenous species of mole, the
islands named Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China have long
been largely ignored.
But as rising powers face off against each other in a battle
not just for influence but also vital resources, such disputed
islets, reefs, and areas of seabed are swiftly growing in
importance; and not just in Asia.
From the melting and resource-rich Arctic to the eastern
Mediterranean, the South Atlantic to the East China Sea, legal
wrangling, diplomatic posturing and military sabre rattling are
all on the rise.
The current row between Beijing and Tokyo over five islets
and three rocks seems one of the riskiest so far, putting two of
Asia's most powerful states at loggerheads - although most
experts believe talk of outright war is overstated for now.
"Some of these lines have always been disputed," says
Admiral Gary Roughead, a former U.S. Pacific Fleet commander who
retired as Navy Chief of Operations last year and is now
Annenberg distinguished fellow at Stanford University's Hoover
"But the resource issue is giving them much greater edge.
You have energy reserves, you have fish stocks - which are
particularly essential to the Asian diet and which I think we
too often ignore - and increasingly you are going to have
interest in undersea minerals and rare earths."
What began as a purely diplomatic row when Japan's
government bought land on the islands from their private owner
has escalated to so far bloodless confrontations between patrol
boats and fishing craft. Last week, Taiwan - which also claims
the islands and with them hundreds of square sea miles believed
to contain considerable gas and oil - entered the fray as its
own patrol craft and fishing boats entered the waters.
"These disputes are definitely coming back into fashion,"
says Eric Thompson, head of strategic studies at the Centre for
Naval Analyses, which provides analysis to the U.S. Navy and
Pentagon amongst other clients as part of larger US-government
funded think tank CNA.
"You have profound geopolitical shifts... that are making
certain states much more politically, economically and
militarily more assertive. Then, you have new technologies that
are putting resources within reach that would have been either
unknown or impossible to access only a few years ago."
Not all states resort to direct action. Later this year,
Chile and Peru will go to the International Court of Justice to
determine the exact location of their maritime boundary while
Bangladesh and Myanmar went through a similar process at the
Hamburg-based tribunal that arbitrates the United Nations
Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Argentina might be raising its rhetoric once again over what
it calls the Malvinas and Britain calls the Falklands, but most
diplomats believe it plans a diplomatic campaign rather than the
kind of direct assault they launched in 1982.
But in a growing number of cases, fishing boats, oil and gas
exploration vessels and sometimes aircraft and warships find
themselves in increasing if so far largely bloodless
Even areas so far unaffected, such as Africa's coastal
waters, could soon also see mounting disputes as oil and gas
finds pit neighbouring nations against each other.
"Launching land wars to seize resources is no longer seen as
acceptable," says Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national
security studies at the US Naval War College. "But a grab for
resources at sea may be a different matter."
"HOW MUCH IS DISPUTED? PRETTY MUCH ALL OF IT"
On a map of the eastern Mediterranean, CNA strategy expert
Thompson sketched out a block in the waters between Turkey,
Cyprus, Israel and Lebanon - the sight of a potentially huge gas
find first identified in 2009.
"It's enough to meet almost the entire world's energy
requirements for almost a year," he told Reuters on a visit to
the Centre for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia earlier
this year. "How much is disputed? Pretty much all of it."
Last year, both Turkey and the government of Cyprus sent
warships out alongside exploration vessels, ratcheting up
tensions that had been easing since a 1974 war left Cyprus
divided. Already increasingly asserting itself as a
Mediterranean power, Turkey has made it clear it backs claims by
the Turkish Cypriot enclave that occupies the island's north.
Rivalry over gas looks to have further complicated the
already increasingly acerbic relationship between one-time
allies Turkey and Israel. Defence sources say the two countries'
jets now periodically face off over the contested waters,
although some believe all sides have been more restrained this
year in part by preoccupation with events in nearby Syria.
Even if such conflicts never spark open warfare, analysts
say they can fuel wider regional tensions, arms races and
potentially raise the risk of wars over other issues.
That could be amongst the greatest danger from China's
grandiose maritime claims, which have put it at loggerheads with
almost every other regional power. While Beijing has become more
assertive, foreign officials and other observers say other Asian
states are following suit.
Japan's focus on its territorial dispute, for example, is
seen suggesting a very different approach to foreign policy than
that usually followed by Tokyo since 1945.
The most complex of China's disputes, over the oil-rich
Spratly Islands, also wraps in the Philippines, Vietnam and
Taiwan. All have stepped up sea and air patrols as well as
garrisoning isolated atolls and floating patrol bases.
HIGH STAKES, LITTLE AGREEMENT
Senior officials make it clear Washington would rather not
be dragged in. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan
Greenert told reporters on Thursday that China and Japan needed
to work out their differences on their own.
"We've been very clear that these bilateral disagreements
have to be worked out with the countries involved," Greenert
said after a speech to the Association of the U.S. Navy.
But the U.S. might struggle to stay on the sidelines,
particularly given its alliances with Japan and other regional
powers - almost all with disputes with China.
"By the very nature of our global presence, we are going to
end up becoming involved," Greenert's predecessor Roughead told
Reuters. "We are going to need to use our influence to push for
peaceful solutions. But there are going to be challenges."
The irony, resource experts say, is that for companies to be
willing to exploit the riches under the sea they will almost
invariably require disputes resolved and conflict risks gone.
But in times of economic headwinds, nationalistic rhetoric
and posturing can seem an appealing distraction. Certainly,
those trying to resolve such issues say it is getting harder.
"The higher the stakes, the more difficult it is," says
Lawrence Martin, a Washington DC-based maritime lawyer advising
governments at law firm Foley Hoag.
"Some of the states have domestic politics that makes it very
difficult to back down."
In principle, any such dispute should be arbitrated under
the UN Convention UNCLOS, introduced in 1982 and ratified by
most countries. The United States, however, has never signed,
despite pleas by a succession of presidents, secretaries of
state and defence and military chiefs to overcome objections
from Congress where some members see it as overly restrictive.
The paradox, US experts in particular say, is that
Washington has tended to follow the convention almost to the
letter when making its own claims, while several states who have
ratified it - most notably China - appeared to ignore it.
"What we are seeing with these disputes is something we see
in a lot of other areas as well," says Jonathan Wood, global
issues analyst at London-based consultancy Control Risks. "It's
increasingly rare to have global consensus on how to manage
difficult issues. And when you think of how a single YouTube
video can stir up demonstrations and riots, you can never
guarantee these things will not get out of control."