Tiny Isles at Frontline of Resource Wars

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The images freeze-frame the front lines of chaos: protesters pressed against the barricades, open mouths shouting ugly slogans, security forces straining to keep the crowd contained.

Yet it's not a scene from Benghazi or Cairo or Sana'a. It's Beijing, in the streets surrounding the Japanese Embassy, where crowds of angry Chinese gathered over the weekend to shout slogans and hurl stones, eggs, golf balls and beer bottles at the symbol of the Japanese state.

At the center of the protest: A territorial tug-of-war over a cluster of five uninhabited islands totaling seven square kilometers (an area about one-tenth the size of the Disney World resort), known as the Senkaku Islands to Japan, and the Diaoyu to China.

But don't let the micro-size of these sea rocks fool you: Under the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) rules of the Law of the Sea Treaty, possession of these islands gives the owner rights to 40,000 square kilometers of the East China Sea, including the seabed beneath.

The current crisis was triggered when Japan's central government - reacting to a nationalist plan to buy and develop the islands - moved to acquire the islands to keep them out of nationalist hands. A flotilla of Chinese activists seeking to raise the PRC flag on the islands was arrested by Japan's Coast Guard - itself an unwelcome reminder to China that the islands are under Japanese control - ratcheting tensions further. By week's end, six Chinese surveillance ships were ducking in and out of the islands' 12 nautical mile limit, with Japanese Coast Guard vessels shadowing them.

Back in China, a nation not known for spontaneous protests, anti-Japanese demonstrations have now swept 28 Chinese cities. Globe and Mail correspondent Mark Mackinnon tweeted a shot from Beijing's 3.3 Mall, the popular shopping center, where the digital jumbotron interspersed anti-Japanese propaganda and shots from the demonstrations with its usual playlist of music videos. Outside the Japanese Embassy, some of the protest slogans - "Japanese Devils, Get Out!" - sounded spontaneous enough, while others - "Diaoyu Islands Should Not Be Covered by Security Treaty Between the United States and Japan" - sounded strangely similar to the press statements of the PRC's Foreign Ministry.

Whether the East China Sea spat spins up or sputters out will be seen in the days and weeks ahead; a fishing ship incident in September 2010 was followed by a 40-day cut-off in Chinese rare earths shipments to Japanese tech companies. Japan released the Chinese ship captain, and the rare earths exports resumed. But talk now in China's official press that China should use economic sanctions in response to Japan's perceived provocation will trigger nervousness in Tokyo.

It's a scenario the world will need to get used to, as the East China Sea is simply one front in the larger Resource Wars that look likely to emerge as the defining global conflict of the 21st Century.



China, driven by its internal development dynamic - namely, the need to bring hundreds of millions of Chinese from subsistence-level living onto the bottom rung of the middle class ladder - is perhaps the first of the world's economic powers to see resource access as a strategic necessity. But other nations have begun to recognize resource imperatives as well, with a competition that will divide into two stages:

Phase 1 is pursuit of seabed deposits of oil and natural gas, in attempt to extend the current petroleum-based energy regime. Technology is a key enabler here, as for the first time in the long history of these border disputes, the opportunity to engage in open-ocean drilling makes development possible.

Phase 2 is the push to lock down seabed rights to a broad range of metals and minerals. Here, technology lags, as the ability to extract at significant depths is not yet demonstrated. But it can hardly be coincidence that in the same month that the East China Sea quarrel heated up again, both Japan's JOGMEC - Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation - and China's Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA) have filed applications with the International Seabed Authority for licenses to conduct seabed exploration for copper, cobalt, manganese and the rare earths.

Beyond the barren rocks in the East China Sea, the maritime theater of the Resource Wars is becoming evident along the seams separating coastal nations: in the South China Sea, where 10 countries hold competing claims - and the Philippines just this week declared their slice should henceforth be called the West Philippine Sea. In the Arctic, between five nations, four of which are NATO allies, where millions of square kilometers are in dispute.

Even at tiny Hans Island, between Canada and Denmark, in which a decades-long Flag War has given way to the so-called Google War, in which web-surfers were hit with dueling paid ads claiming Hans for Canadian or Danish sovereignty. Barren Hans may be less than a half mile in any direction, but, in the geometry of the EEZ, no boundary rock is ever too small to surrender - even the smallest island in the open ocean entitles its sovereign authority to claim more than 360,000 square kilometers of sea and seabed.

China, which sees the current East China Sea dispute with Japan as a centuries-long thread of Chinese sovereignty dating to the Ming Dynasty subverted by Japan's victory in the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, applies a long lens to these territorial conflicts. Much of the West, of course, resides in Wayne's World, with a "Live in the Now!" historical consciousness that extends no further than Classic Rock. We find it hard to take seriously that someone would skirmish now over boundaries that have been blurred without consequence for a hundred years or more.

But our world is shrinking - as global population takes aim at 10 billion, and as technology brings within our reach more and more of the seabed in the 70 percent of our planet that's covered by water. It's there we'll find the metals and minerals that will literally fuel 21st Century economies, and provide the "material inputs" for the technologies that increasingly ease our lives, speed our communications - and power our war machines.

And it's the battle to determine who controls a scattering of barren rocks that will determine who holds the rights to the seabed, and what lies beneath.

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