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Disputes over islands worry Asia

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The survey ship Koyo Maru, left, chartered by Tokyo city officials, sails around Minamikojima, foreground, Kitakojima, middle right, and Uotsuri, background, the tiny islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. (AP)

Hardly a day goes by without another incident involving disputes between rival Asian powers over what seem on the surface to be small, insignificant islands.

The war of words over the sovereignty of these small, rocky outcrops in the sea is in danger of sparking real clashes that could force the U.S. to intervene.

The dominant factors feeding this friction seem to be the need for new energy sources in the power hungry region, unresolved differences over who owns what after World War II and the rise of China.

Apart from one ongoing fight between Japan and South Korea over one of the islands, the one country that is involved in all these disputes is China.

“I think the overwhelming reason for this situation is that for the first time in hundreds of years, China is in a position to adopt a proactive foreign policy, particularly in terms of what it calls its 'core interests,' " James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor of IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly tells Fox News. "By virtue of its size and potential, China is distorting the status quo in northeast and southeast Asia." 

The most dangerous confrontation at the moment is between China and Japan over control of the Diaoyu Islands, as they are known by China, or Senaku islands in Japan. 

The islands are located on rich fishing waters and are potentially huge oil and gas reserves.

Last year, a Chinese fishing trawler was arrested after ramming a Japanese coast guard vessel near the islands and was apparently only released after China cut off exports of rare earth minerals crucial to the Japanese telecommunications industry.

Now, the outspoken Mayor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishiharo, who often issues provocative against China, is in danger of escalating the dispute to a more dangerous level.

First, he announced he intended to name panda cubs born by a panda on loan from China after the islands. Pandas have been shipped around the world by China to support diplomacy, but Ishihara seemed to be attempting some kind of reverse panda diplomacy.

He then announced a scheme to raise money to buy the islands from the Japanese family that owns them and suggested developing them to strengthen Japan’s sovereignty.

That was the catalyst for a wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, including the burning of Japanese cars, the smashing off restaurants and an attack on the Japanese ambassador’s car in Beijing in which the flag was stolen from it.

There was also series of landings on the islands by nationalists on both sides. One group even erected flags of China and Taiwan together on an island. It seems ideological differences between China and Taiwan is currently outweighed by nationalism.

The underlying nationalist feelings on both sides have now come to the surface with each looking to history to back up their claim.

China says documents from the Ming Dynasty era back up its claim to ownership, while Japan points to its expansion in the 19th century and claims the islands were uninhabited when it took them over.

Behind the antagonism on the Chinese side is continued anger over the atrocities committed by Japanese forces on its soil during the World War II, while many Japanese seem to fear the rise of China.

Both sides agree on one thing: that the sea surrounding the islands may be rich in oil and gas.

In an attempt to defuse the tension surrounding the mayor of Tokyo's plan to buy the islands the Japanese government announced it was looking to buy the islands itself.

But that hasn’t gone down well in China,  with Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei saying that it "sabotages China's territorial sovereignty."

At the APEC summit in Vladivostok, Russia on Sunday, Chinese President Hu Jintao told Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda that buying the islands was "illegal and invalid".

At the moment, the Japanese government is pushing ahead with the purchase but Tokyo Governor Ishihara hasn’t given up yet on his plan to buy them.

The major difficulty is balancing China’s desire to protect what is sees as its historic claims to the islands and the territory surrounding them with competing claims from neighboring countries.

This has also caused friction further south in the South China Sea, where Beijing claims a huge area that spreads from Hainan Island nearly as far as Singapore. It faces competing claims from countries like Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

This is where the Obama administration’s new “Asia First” strategy of strengthening its forces in this region comes up against China flexing its muscles to support its territorial claims.

At last weekend’s APEC Summit Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized this new approach to Asia.

“After an extended period in which the U.S. had to focus a great deal of attention and resources on regions and conflicts elsewhere, we are now making substantially increased investments in the Asia Pacific,” she said.

This means beefing up U.S. military capacity in the region including the basing of Marines in Australia and conducting joint military exercises with nations who have locked horns with China in the South China Sea.

The Philippines and Chinese navies earlier this year confronted each other over a disputed area known as the Scarborough Shoal.

Despite its weak armed forces, the Philippines has a long-standing mutual defense treaty with the United States and they also stage annual joint military exercises. Although there has been friction between the two allies in the past, forcing the U.S. to close its bases there, they have now moved closer as China’s military strength grows.

IHS political and risk analyst Maria Patrikainen believes China is particularly suspicious of a joint military exercise in April involving seizing an oil rig that had theoretically been captured by terrorists off the coast of Palawan in the South China Sea.

“(The exercise) is likely to have sent a strong message to China that the Manila and Washington governments are further stepping up their military relations, ” Patrikainen says. 

However, while smaller Asian nations like the Philippines remain hopeful that the U.S. will get more involved to limit China’s attempt to dominate its neighbors and press its claims, Patrikainen believes Washington remains wary of getting sucked into territorial disputes:

“With the U.S. remaining wary of upsetting China and mainly interested in ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea instead of supporting the Philippines' territorial claims, it will be careful in how support for the Philippines is provided so as to avoid confrontation” she says.

Over the past week Secretary of State Clinton has traveled across Asia bringing the message that the U.S. remains engaged here and called for a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

After talks in Beijing with the Chinese leadership, Clinton warned her hosts she and the U.S. were “not going to shy away from standing up for our strategic interests and in expressing clearly where we differ.”

There is, though, an understandable wariness in getting sucked into disputes in the South China Sea as the last time the U.S. got involved there was back in 1964 when after clashes with North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin it led to US involvement in the Vietnam War.