Click for a transcript of " Videographic: East Asia's Maritime Disputes Video" video.
The standoff between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea brings the two sides closer to armed conflict than at any time since the second world war. After the war the islands known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China were under American administration until they were 100 back to Japan in 1972. Japan says they have long been its territory and admits no dispute claiming also that China only started expressing an interest when it began to seem that oil and gas might lie under the sea. But China says they have always been part of China just what it says about Taiwan which also claims the Diaoyus. This is the most active and dangerous dispute, but not the only one in which Japan is embroiled. It was furious in 2012 when South Korea's president Lee Myung-bak visited the island South Koreans call Dokdo and Japan claims as Takeshima. It is a mirror Japan's dispute with China. South Korea is in control.
Then there are what Japan calls its northern territories. Occupied by the Soviet Union in the dying days of the war, these islands the southernmost four of the curel chain are still administered by Russia. Because of the dispute Japan and Russia have yet to sign a peace treaty ending the second world war. Maritime claims in southeast Asia even more complex and competition is made more intense by speculation that the South China Sea might be hugely rich in oil and gas. China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all say they have sovereignty over the Paracel Islands controlled by China since it evicted the Vietnamese from them in 1974. To the south the same three countries also claimed the Spratly archipelago, but there and elsewhere in the sea the Philippines also has a substantial claim. Malaysia also claims some islands even tiny Brunei has an interest.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS and its tribunal, is one form for tackling these disputes. But UNCLOS cannot rule over territorial disputes, just over the territorial waters and exclusive economic zone the owners a habitable islands are entitled to. And the claims of China and Taiwan may have nothing to do with UNCLOS. They point to a map published in the 1940s, showing a big U-shaped, 9-dashed line around the edge of the sea. That they say, is historically all China's. This has no basis in international law, and China often fails to clarify whether its claims are based on the 9-dashed line or claims to islands, rocks, and shoals. That lack of clarity alarms not just its neighbors and rival claimants, but the United States which says it has its own national interest in freedom navigation in a sea through which passes a huge chunk of global trade.