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The geopolitical match is being fought over several island groups. The primary chains are:
The Spratly Islands in the South China Sea: Vietnam, People's Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (ROC), Malaysia, Philippines, and Brunei.
The Paracel Islands in the South China Sea: PRC, ROC, and Vietnam (the PRC defeated South Vietnam in a 1974 sea battle over the islands).
The Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea: Japan, PRC, and ROC.
Here are three points which are constants in both China Seas arguments
1) China is the driver of the recent debate. The PRC feels bound in by the chain of land and islands stretching from Far East Russia, down Japan and the Philippines, through Indonesia and Malaysia, and up Vietnam. If the PRC can control the range of islands then the PRC can lean on its neighbors rather than feel pressed in.
2) It is also about resources. There are several major natural gas fields near these islands. Anyone who controls these islands gets easily exploited wealth and energy.
3) The Republic and People's Republic of China are one in this . While there is some argument over just who would get to control what, at the end of the day Taiwan does not view itself as independent but instead as the legitimate government of all of China. Taipei and Beijing would rather have one of them control the islands vice any foreign power because both these two governments view reunion as only a matter of when, not if.
Below are some maps to help one better visualize the conflicts
|Competing claims in the South China Sea. Note how China and Vietnam's claims extend. From Wikipedia.|
|Actual control of islands. Note how some points in the same atoll are controlled by different countries. Click to enlarge Image from M4.CN|
|Dark grey areas represent natural gas and oil fields in the disputed zones. Click to enlarge. Image from the Atlantic.|
|Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Note the gas fields. From Guambat Stew|
So why does all this matter? The East and South China Seas have major shipping ways. Think about everything that comes from China. That goes through the disputed zones. Any real conflict could shut down or limit trade immensely. Prices would sky rocket. For those Downunder, The Australian made an excellent graphic showing that 65.7% of all Australian and 43.8% of all Australian imports go through the disputed South China Sea.
|Click to enlarge|