The Next Global Hotspot to Worry About

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If you're worn out worrying about Syria, Gaza, Iran, you name it, I give you: the announcement today by police on China's large southern island of Hainan that, starting on January 1, they will assert a right to stop and board any vessel they consider to have violated China's very expansive claim of territorial waters in the South China Sea.

Take a look at this rendering of the area over which China asserts territorial sovereignty. More details below, but the red line encloses what China considers its own sovereign area; the blue shows Vietnam's claims; the purple shows those of the Philippines; the yellow is Malaysia's; and the green is from Brunei.

NineDashSCS.png

You get the idea just from the map why China's recent insistence on its claims has riled its neighbors through the region. For instance, Brunei is a very long way from mainland China, but China contends that its waters reach practically down to Brunei's shores.

Now let's add the detail that the faint white lines on the map show major shipping routes -- whose importance is even greater than the map suggests. Obviously lots of commerce in and out of China goes through Hong Kong and neighboring ports. But shipping lanes that have nothing directly to do with mainland China, including the export paths from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to Europe, pass through these waters toward the Indian Ocean. Half the world's oil-cargo traffic comes back the opposite way, from the Middle East, through this same route.

For months, Chinese patrol boats and other craft have scuffled with foreign vessels, mainly from the Philippines and most often over contested fishing grounds. But an assertion from officials in Hainan that they can stop and board any vessel passing through these waters is something quite different. The US Navy has had a lot of different missions over the centuries, but one of its elemental purposes has been defending freedom-of-navigation on the high seas. The Seventh Fleet is the regnant military power in this area. I am usually in the "oh calm down" camp about frictions, especially military, between China and America. But it is easy to imagine things becoming dangerous, quickly, if the new Chinese administration actually tries to carry out this order.

Let's hope the Hainan diktat will just go away, or will not be enforced, or will be dismissed in Beijing as some oddball over-reach by authorities in the far south. A Chinese government deliberately courting this kind of showdown would be a very bad sign.

More on South China Sea disputes; the origins of the Chinese claims, often referred to (for reasons you'll see) as the "nine-dashed line";  other tensions involving the nine dashes (plus this); initial US reaction.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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