Island Grabbing in Asia

Why the South China Seas are So Tense

A Map of Conflicts in the South China Sea (Sam Pepple / Sample Cartography). Click to enlarge.

Last month, Japanese activists planted their country's flag on one of the Senkaku Islands (which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands), a chain claimed by China, Japan, and Taiwan. The move sparked protests in China and inspired headlines in the West, but the provocation was hardly surprising. The three bodies of water in East Asia -- the Sea of Japan (bounded by Japan, North Korea, South Korea, and Russia), the East China Sea (bordered by China and Japan's Ryukyu Islands), and the South China Sea (surrounded by Borneo, China, the Philippines, and Vietnam) -- are home to hundreds of disputed islands, atolls, and shoals. And in the last few years, the diplomatic and militaristic struggles to assert authority have become increasingly brazen.

On one level, patriotism is making things worse. Japan's tussle with China

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