Territorial Disputes and the Future of Asia

by Benjamin Studebaker

It has been in and out of the corner of the western press’s eye the last few years. China has been flexing its muscle in Asia, attempting to press claims to territory, both land and sea, on its various borders. This has not gone unnoticed by China’s neighbours,  who are quite furious with China over some of its more belligerent acts. The matter has been simmering, off and on, for some time. What I find most interesting about it, however, is how this dispute has set the nations of Asia against each other, dividing it between two sides, one pro-China, the other against.

First, let’s have a look at what these territorial disputes are over. First, we have the South China Sea dispute:

The usual rule of thumb is that nations have economic rights to all naval territory within 200 nautical miles of land territory. That arrangement is shown in blue. However, China claims that it possesses the disputed Spratly islands, and that consequently its exclusive economic zone of control is much larger, as seen in red. The dispute matters for the purposes of securing access to oil and natural gas reserves in the South China Sea along with fishing and shipping routes. The dispute matters economically and is not merely a matter of nationalist bombast (though it certainly does bring out that element in the people of the various aggrieved countries). Among the nations taking exception to China’s claims in this region are Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Parts of the Spratlys are presently administered by each of the various disputant countries.

Second, we have the dispute between China and Japan:

This dispute, again over oil and gas fields, turns on whether the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are Chinese or Japanese, respectively. It has similar economic importance to the two nations. The islands are, at present, administered by Japan.

Third, we have the dispute between China and India:

These disputes remain holdovers from the 1962 Sino Indian War. This rather small war was lost badly by India.

And of course, let’s not forget China’s claim that Taiwan does not exist and is really a part of China.

Many countries have land disputes–what’s most significant is the manner in which China has recently pressed its claims:

China’s state run newspapers have been particularly bellicose. The Chinese Global Times has written:

If these countries don’t want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons. We need to be ready for that, as it may be the only way for the disputes in the sea to be resolved.

This has provoked reactions from the nations with which China is in dispute, including protests in Vietnam, calls for a boycott of Chinese products among Filipinos, and a rightward, nationalist shift in Japanese politics. The conflict has even managed to soil concordance among the nations of ASEAN.

The whole thing seems slowly to be divided Asia into two camps, one backing China, the other against it. At present, these blocs looks something like this:

Asia Divided

Here, we can see 9 Pro-Chinese countries:

Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, China, Cambodia, Mongolia, North Korea.

This is countered by 9 Anti-Chinese countries:

India, Bhutan, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan.

The remaining 4 are neutral:

Indonesia, Singapore, Maldives, Laos, Nepal.

We certainly should hope that the dispute cools off and is eventually resolved, but what happens if it does not, and this escalates into becoming the dominant paradigm in Asian relations? What if China pushes these countries into formalising their opposition to China’s claims? What is the relative strength of the two groups?

The combined GDP for China’s group is $11.3 trillion. As for the group in opposition? Also $11.3 trillion, according to the IMF statistics. It would likely be a very close contest. Thankfully, there are a few barriers to a giant regional war in Asia:

  1. Chinese Military Superiority
  2. Hegemony
  3. Nuclear Peace

Let us examine how each one of these keeps the peace in Asia.

Chinese Military Superiority:

The anti-Chinese bloc has the same raw output as the pro-Chinese block, but it uses a much smaller percentage of that output on military spending. China spends $143 billion per year on defence; compare that to Japan, the undisputed economic leader of the anti-Chinese bloc, which spends a mere $59 billion. Japan presently spends only 1% of its GDP on defence, the lowest percentage among the developed economies. That said, this would not in and of itself be sufficient to prevent war–low defence spending by Japan in not likely to remain constant in the long-term. In the upcoming Japanese election, the right wing Restoration Party currently runs in second place and will likely push Japan toward a more militarist agenda. Even more notably, the present military weakness gives China an advantage one might expect it to exploit. There must be another force existing to restrain China from using military force in the region.


The United States remains the global military hegemon, far and away the most powerful military state in the world, and, when it comes to the notion of international trade being disrupted by an Asian war, the United States is emphatically opposed. If China seeks to exploit its present military advantage, it has to do so wondering if the United States and its giant, $15 trillion plus GDP and exquisite military will join against it to put a stop to any policy it might view as aggressive.  At present the United States remains very much in favour of maintaining access to cheap Chinese imports, but what if the United States changes policy and decides it feels threatened by a rising China? What’s to stop the United States from attacking it in combination with its regional foes? There is one last, final restraint in such a scenario.

Nuclear Peace:

Both China and the United States (and, if the Restoration Party gets its way, Japan someday) have nuclear weapons. This makes war between the US and China too costly for either to engage in, regardless of advantages in conventional armaments (which would very much favour the US at present). It is a classic case of mutually assured destruction. And, as such, even should the US’s conventional advantage someday wane, war between the two states remains impossible so long as nuclear weapons present a doomsday threat. Should one country figure out some new technology by which it might protect itself from nuclear attack, however, this barrier too would fall away.

A serious war in Asia is certainly a long way off, but the seeds for it could be planted in these present territorial disputes. It is not so far-fetched to imagine a world in which something like Ronald Reagan’s SDI or a much more advanced version of Israel’s iron dome actually succeeds in making nuclear weapons as we presently know them obsolete. It is consequently imperative that a resolution be found for these land disputes sooner rather than later.