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China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?
China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?

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4.5 Territorial disputes

While the bilateral relationship between China and the United States is a key part of the picture, there is also a complex combination of mutual and conflicting interests in the triangular relations between China, United States and allies in the region. One example of this is territorial disputes.

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Figure 16 These islands, known as ‘Diaoyu’ in China and ‘Senkaku’ in Japan, are claimed by both countries – a source of tension and potential future conflict

China claims territory that is currently held both by Japan (Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands) and Vietnam (the Spratly Islands).

Japan claimed the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the late nineteenth century and was awarded sovereignty over them in 1971. China disputes Japan’s claim. The islands are close to important shipping lanes, rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas reserves. In recent years, both Japan and China have made moves to strengthen their claims, including China declaring an air identification zone over the islands.

The dispute between Hanoi and Beijing centres on the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as well as nearby areas considered rich in oil and other natural resources. The two countries have clashed in the past over the two island chains resulting in the death of hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers. Vietnam has been actively modernising its navy and seeking support from other countries.

In recent years, China has also been building artificial islands on reefs along the Spratly island chain, increasing regional fears about its territorial ambitions. A ‘sail by’ by a US warship in 2015, to assert what it sees as rights to free passage of shipping in the area, increased tensions between the two countries even more.

Competing claims to the same territory like these are inherently zero-sum conflicts: more for one means less for the other. Where states prioritise territorial claims against one another, there is much scope for conflict. Whether China would prioritise relatively small-scale territorial claims enough to result in warfare – particularly if that were to draw in the United States – is more of an open question.

However, there may be areas of mutual interest that could be promoted. For example, all countries in the region have a shared interest in the maintenance of peace and security, trade interests and the regional tourist industry. China’s long-term interest may lie in reassuring countries in the region to prevent them allying with each other or the United States against China.

Former Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping used to advise the Chinese to marginalise territorial disputes and focus instead on mutual economic interests. Popular opinion in China draws on the senses of historic injustices you studied earlier, which is one reason why this isn’t necessarily adhered to today.