WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 saber 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 Institute.
“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 confrontation.
Even areas so far unaffected, such as Africa’s coastal waters, could soon also see mounting disputes as oil and gas finds pit neighboring 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.
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.”
Reporting By Peter Apps; editing by Ralph Boulton