The Second Thomas Shoal might not seem like much. A small reef about 125 nautical miles from the Philippines in the South China Sea, it is home to a rusting Filipino warship named the Sierra Madre that ran aground in 1999 — and little else.
Yet in early March, Chinese ships tried to block the Filipino navy from bringing supplies to a small group of marines stationed on the Sierra Madre. When a Filipino ship slipped past the blockade and reached the shoal, China cried foul, accusing the Philippines, according to Reuters, of an “illegal occupation.”
The reef is just one of a number of flashpoints between China and its Asian neighbors over territory in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. As with the Second Thomas Shoal, nearly all of the islands in dispute are of little value themselves—but the surrounding sea lanes, fisheries and potential undersea oil and gas resources are.
China has claimed much of the South China Sea, defining its area by what it calls the “nine-dash line,” which extends hundreds of miles south and east from the southern coast of the mainland to waters closer to inhabited parts of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. Conflicts over the islands have occasionally been deadly. Fighting between Chinese and Vietnamese troops over disputed islands in 1974 and 1988 left about 130 Vietnamese dead, according to the BBC.
Recently the conflicts have been more minor, as in 2012, when China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal after the Philippines tried to arrest Chinese fishermen. Both countries agreed to withdraw from the area, but only the Philippines did, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The Philippines has pursued legal efforts to resolve the conflict. Last year, it brought the dispute to the U.N’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, challenging China’s claims under the U.N.’s Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“It is about defending what is legitimately ours…it is about guaranteeing freedom of navigation for all nations,” Albert del Rosario, the Philippine foreign secretary said in March, according to the BBC.
China has chosen not to take part in the case, and says it will not accept the rulings. The Philippines should “stop going any further down the wrong track so as to avoid further damage to bilateral relations,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman told the British broadcaster.
The outcome is likely to have interesting consequences, said Bonnie Glaser, a senior advisor for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Whether Beijing chooses to ignore any ruling “might also tell us about whether China, as a nation, is going to abide by international law or is going to challenge and basically flout international law when it doesn’t serve its interests,” she said in an interview.
In the East China Sea, it’s China and Japan at odds over a group of eight uninhabited islands and rocks that are known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China. Near fishing grounds, shipping lanes and oil and gas reserves, the islands have been a source of rising tension — the U.S. has been drawn into the dispute.
In November, China announced a new air defense zone over a part of the East China Sea that included the islands, requiring aircraft in the area to report to their flight plans and nationalities to Chinese authorities. The U.S., which has a defense pact with Japan, said it wouldn’t recognize the Chinese claim, and it flew two B-52 bombers through the area in what the State Department called a planned military exercise.
On April 23, President Obama tied the U.S. even closer to Japan’s position by telling Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper that the Senkaku islands were included in the defense pact, implying that the U.S. would respond militarily to Chinese occupation of the islands.
That led to a rebuke from China the next day. “The United States should respect the facts, in a responsible manner abide by its commitment not to choose sides over a territorial sovereignty issue, be cautious on words and deeds, and earnestly play a constructive role for peace and stability in the region,” a Chinese foreign affairs spokesman said in a news conference, according to the New York Times.
The complicated nature of the disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea means they receive little international attention, said Ely Ratner, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. But he said he thinks that in terms of the long-term interests of the U.S., the conflicts are as important — if not more important — than many of the more visible ones, such as the situations in Syria or Ukraine.
“Across almost any metric: economic, political, security, social, the future of the Asia-Pacific region is more important to the United States than many of these other regions where we’re expending huge amounts of resources,” he said in an interview. “And so not getting these problems right will have much more dire implications than not managing crises elsewhere in the world.”
Most of the actors in both disputes are pushing toward competition rather than cooperation, he added.
“Even if there were original root causes in resources or whatnot, the issues have gotten so politicized,” he said. “It’s become an issue of nationalism and sovereignty that most leaders are unwilling to be seen as compromising on.”