South China Sea Dispute

Map of the South China Sea showing the disputed Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands (Wikimedia Commons).

Map of the South China Sea showing the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands.

Tiny islands have become the focus of heated disputes between Asian countries great and small. What might it mean for the United States and the world?

Over recent weeks, long-simmering territorial disputes in Asia have been boiling over. Seemingly insignificant islands, many of them uninhabited, have become flash points between Japan and South Korea, Japan and Russia, and especially China and many of its neighbors.

Why are these islands and the waters around them provoking such controversy now? explained, “Vast oil reserves, trillion-dollar trade routes, fervent nationalist sentiments, competing territorial claims and bitter histories—the waters off the east coast of China are a sea of money and a sea of trouble.

“Tensions have been rising for several years and recently hit new heights with activists landing on disputed islands, angry diplomatic exchanges and even a threat to deploy troops, prompting fears of an armed conflict that could potentially involve the United States, China, Japan and other nations.”

Many of the disputes go back to the aftermath of World War II, and hatreds formed during that war still haunt the region.

“The South China Sea has a myriad of competing claims of ownership: China staked out most of it in 1947 but its neighbors have never accepted it. The Spratly Islands alone are claimed by a total of five countries: China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam.”

Clinton’s visit to China

In the midst of these tensions, as well as disagreements about Syria and a number of other topics, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Beijing. After marathon meetings late into the evening Sept. 4, she met with Premier Wen Jiabao Sept. 5. He again staked out China’s position that the U.S. should not meddle in the territorial disputes.

Wen said, “I feel that our two countries should maintain political mutual respect and strategic mutual trust. The United States should respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” (The Washington Post, Sept. 5, 2012).

Mrs. Clinton was greeted by negative personal attacks in the Chinese state media, highlighting the strained relationship. The growing U.S. strategic focus on Asia is mistrusted in China.

Conflicting claims to the South China Sea (VOA map).

Conflicting claims to the South China Sea (VOA map).

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei warned against U.S. “interference” in the region’s territorial disputes. “We have noticed the United States has said many times that it will not hold a position on the South China Sea issue. We hope they can keep their promises and do more things that are conducive to regional peace and stability, not the opposite” (Voice of America).

In an earlier stop in Indonesia, Mrs. Clinton had encouraged Southeast Asian nations to agree to negotiate with China as a unified group. China insists that any talks be one-on-one.

Mrs. Clinton attempted to give context to the challenges facing the United States and China. She said, “Our two nations are trying to do something that has never been done in history, which is to write a new answer to the question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet,” The Washington Post reported.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “The trip has once again underlined the Obama administration’s desire to refocus its foreign policy on a region critical to global economic growth yet fraught with territorial disputes, military buildups and heightened nationalism” (“Skepticism Greets Clinton in China,” Sept. 5, 2012).

Rumors of war

As these long-simmering disputes come to a boil, it’s a diplomat’s nightmare. It seems new flash points are appearing overnight, as nationalists in several countries are demanding their governments do more or are taking matters into their own hands by waving their flags over disputed islands.

It would seem it’s in no one’s interest to risk war. But as nationalist feelings rise and memories of the atrocities of previous wars are evoked, rumors of war begin to fly (Matthew 24:6).

President Obama recognizes the strategic importance of the Asian shipping lanes and economies. The United States certainly has interests in the region, but can it really build up a naval presence in the Pacific that can balance China’s growing might for the long term? For a country deeply in debt with a military stretched very thin, hard choices lie ahead.

Can the world’s current superpower continue to serve as the world’s policeman—in every troubled corner of the globe? Can the United States afford to stand up to the country to which it owes trillions of dollars?

Will a focus on the Pacific Rim lead to a neglect of other strategic interests, particularly in the Middle East and Europe?

History shows that overstretched empires and superpowers reach their limits and can lose their will or their ability to project their power. Will the South China Sea disputes be another distraction that hastens America’s decline?

Biblical prophecy focuses on Europe and the Middle East, but massive armies from the East also play a major role in end-time events (Revelation 9:14-16).

For more about end-time prophecy, see our section on the “End Times.” For more about the United States’ future, see “What Is Going to Happen to America?”

About the Author

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett is editorial content manager for the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in the Dallas, Texas, area. He coordinates the Life, Hope & Truth website, Discern magazine, the Daily Bible Verse Blog and the Life, Hope & Truth Weekly Newsletter (including World Watch Weekly). He is also part of the Personal Correspondence team of ministers who have the privilege of answering questions sent to Life, Hope & Truth.

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