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 over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, for example, is a touchstone for those in Japan who fear China's growing political and economic might. Likewise, South Korea's assertion of control over the Dokdo Islands (known as the Takeshima Islands in Japan) is viewed at home as a patriotic riposte to Japan's 40-year occupation of the peninsula.
Beyond symbolism, however, these three bodies of water flow over East Asia's Outer Continental Shelf and the submerged deltas of many major river systems -- geological features that suggest the presence of vast deposits of oil and natural gas. Yet, although the resources have been there for millennia, it is only in the last decade that the energy sector has even started to develop extractive technologies that will eventually make these reserves accessible.
Nobody wants to lose out, especially because East Asia is energy hungry. The region is home to only three percent of the world's proven oil reserves and eight percent of its natural gas reserves. China, for example, already imports 58 percent of the oil and 22 percent of the gas it uses each year. Japan is