The "Mega Game" in the Far East is all about islands [click here to enlarge]. Various events in recent days have contributed to a rise in tension relating to three different archipelagos: the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the Senkaku or Diaoyu archipelago in the East China Sea, and the Kurile Islands stretching northwards from Japan.
The Spratly archipelago consists of roughly 700 coralline islands and reefs that are variously claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, and many of them play host to small military bases belonging to one or other of these countries. They are significant for the fishing rights attached to them and also because of ocean beds that may be rich in petrol and gas. On Wednesday 3 March, a Philippine ship carrying out petrol soundings was approached and obstructed by two Chinese patrol boats. Manila immediately sent two warplanes to the site of the incident.
Also on 3 March, according to Japanese sources, two Chinese reconnaissance planes were flying just 50 kilometres from the Senkaku Islands, controlled by Tokyo but claimed by both Peking and Taipei. Japan immediately sent two fighter jets to the area, but the emergency soon receded. The tension throughout the zone has been high since last September, when a Chinese fishing ship rammed two Japanese patrol boats, creating a nasty diplomatic incident complete with nationalist demonstrations in both countries and scathing declarations by politicians and commentators. Here too, the rewards at stake consist of fishing resources and possible gas and oil deposits.
The most acute tensions, however, involve Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and Habomai, namely the four most southerly Kurile Islands. Japan considers them an inalienable part of its territory, but the Soviet Union occupied them in 1945. On Thursday 4 March, in a statement by President Medvedev, Russia announced that it plans to soon install a series of more technologically advanced weapons systems: Tor-M2 missiles (capable of simultaneously attacking four different targets) and Yakhont missiles (medium-range vectors that can transport warheads weighing up to 200 kilos), and a squadron of Mi-28 assault helicopters with antitank and anti-aircraft missiles. Tokyo's protests were inevitable and intense.
As a background to these single incidents, both China and Russia have announced increases in military expenditure, while Japan has already launched a new defence programme named "dynamic defence capability", which is tailor-made to respond to eventual Chinese threats while at the same time keeping one eye on its giant northern neighbour.
The military strategies of individual nations are always adjusted according to worst-case scenarios, and this obviously tends to generate escalations and a widening of potential conflicts. Consequently, the weaker contestants - Japan, but especially the various smaller nations contending parts of the Spratly Archipelago - inevitably end up looking around for a big protector (i.e. the US) capable of offering them clear technological advantages.
Power politics in the Far East offers a blend of historical and cultural factors together with extremely updated economic motives (read energy requirements), especially in regard to the control of submarine mineral deposits and marine navigation routes vital for the transit of trade and raw materials.
The case of the Kurile Islands is exemplary. The historic dispute, with the open wound to Japanese pride of soviet occupation just a few kilometres from the cost of Hokkaido, is compounded by impellent strategic factors: these islands are effectively the doorway from the Okhotsk Sea to the Pacific Ocean and vice versa, a kind of Far Eastern Dardanelles Straight that is the key to the mobility of the Russian Pacific fleet.
Russian and Chinese expansionism at the expense of Japan and lesser Asian countries, then? Not necessarily. Among the various interpretations of Russia's decision to re-arm and to return to a more assertive role in northeast Asia, the most suggestive has been put forward by Alexei Pilko, a commentator close to the corridors of power according to whom Moscow is worried about a possible ‘entente cordiale' in the Far East, between China and the US: a "Taiwan-North Korean swop" which would free China's energies to concentrate on the economic colonisation of the immensity of Siberian Russia.
He who thinks ill may bring ill, but may also be right: such could well be the rationale circulating within the walls of the Kremlin.