China-Japan row 'bigger' than those in South China Sea

THE territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands is a bigger flashpoint than the ones in the South China Sea, a maritime security expert has said.

Dr Euan Graham, senior fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told a conference in Singapore yesterday that the potential for conflict is greater in the East China Sea because the United States would also probably become involved through the US-Japan security alliance.

The bigger concentrations of military and economic power and larger populations also meant that the stakes were higher for the states involved, he told The Straits Times later.

Relations between China and Japan have hit rock bottom over the uninhabited islands that both claim, particularly after Tokyo bought three of the islands from their private owner in September, with both sides ratcheting up tensions.

While national pride plays a part in the row, another factor is that the area is believed to be rich in energy resources.

In comparison, while there is potential for incidents in the South China Sea disputes - in which China has overlapping territorial claims with four Asean states as well as Taiwan - the prospects that these will escalate into a major war are much less.

This is because there is "more asymmetry between the claiming parties - China is by far the giant among the claimants - and the individual South-east Asian claimants have no hope of matching China in military terms", Dr Graham explained.

"Therefore, it's a question of how they can compensate for that disparity by trying to internationalise the issue." This approach is taken by the Vietnamese and Filipinos, mainly by bringing in the US.

The two-day conference, which ends today, is organised by the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore to commemorate 40 years of formal ties between the two Asian rivals.

suinoi@sph.com.sg