James Holmes

Island Mania in the Asia-Pacific

How an odd mix of economics, defense, nationalism and ‘trendsetting’ are creating a dangerous dynamic.

James R. Holmes

Islands, islands, and more islands. Why do islands capture imaginations and fire competitive passions at this particular moment in Asian history? From the Spratlys and Paracels to the south to the Senkakus/Diaoyutais near the midpoint of the first island chain to the Dokdo/Takeshima islets to the north, Asian officials are waging wars of words over flyspecks on the map. Even the Russians have gotten into the act, needling Japan in the Kuriles. None of these maritime territorial quarrels are new, yet they have come to dominate headlines at the same time. Why?

We all know the objective reasons why governments prize islands in this age of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. States that exercise sovereignty over habitable islands are entitled to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, an offshore belt of sea along with the seabed underneath. Fish can be caught in the water; sea floors are supposedly ready to disgorge untold natural riches. Some islands hold strategic merit as well. If a nation’s military forces are strong enough to defend and resupply them in wartime, they can make valuable forward outposts—advancing a nation’s strategic frontiers in useful directions on the map.

But these things have long been true. Again, why the resurgence of island disputes along the Asian seaboard now? For one thing, coastal states have entangled their island claims with larger questions of sovereignty and national identity. And challenges to sovereignty—to who we are as a people—arouse citizens’ fighting spirit. That’s particularly true in Asia, where seaborne conquerors reduced sovereign states to servitude only a historical eyeblink ago

For another, clashes over islands are visually intelligible, and they are binary. Unlike murky squabbles over, say, Kashmir, you can point to an island on the map. It’s compact and isolated, with no “lines of control” or other such artifices to clutter the issue. It belongs to you, or it belongs to me. Disputants might divide a cluster of islands the way GermanyandtheUnitedStatesdidwithSamoa in the 1890s, but not a single island. Blinding clarity rules.

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Even these factors don’t explain today’s confluence of events, though. I hate to wax Hegelian, but my Hegelsense is tingling. Something may be transpiring in that dim subterranean realm, the realm of consciousness. Big powers like China are trendsetters. The late Sam Huntington prophesied, for example, that Mandarin would become the world’s lingua franca if China continued its meteoric ascent to economic, military, and political eminence. People admire and emulate success. And Beijing has long pushed—though not in so many words—the idea that the sea represents territorytobeoccupied, fencedoff, andcontrolled rather than a thoroughfareorcommonstobefreelytraveled by all seafaring nations.

If that vision of the closedsea is taking hold, we’re seeing something like Europe’s frantic rush to occupy the Americas and their aquatic environs starting in the 15th century. For aspiring imperial powers the American continents, not to mention the rich sugar islands of the Caribbean Sea, counted as terra nullius—territory that belonged to no man. The opportunity for land and resource grabs concentrated minds in Europe, and set loose centuries of competition and warfare that subsided only in the 19th century. Today’s contests over islands could be a smaller-scale version of the same thing, though hopefully without the martial strife.

I hope I’m wrong about this. Freedom of the sea is the substructure on which our system of global trade and commerce is built. Tampering with it could erode the whole edifice over time, with unknowable consequences.

Help me puzzle this one out. What say you?