As an international relations buff, one of my pet peeves is when people can’t tell the difference between China and Japan. They have close links and many cultural similarities. Japan owes much of its civilization to Chinese influence. Chinese and Japanese people superficially look similar. There are other cultures that get confused often, like Spain and Mexico or Ireland and Scotland. But I still find the confusion hard to forgive. Anyone with at least a little knowledge of international affairs should be able to tell the difference between these 2 countries, since there are many, and fundamental ones too. China and Japan were never the same country and developed in isolation for most of their history. Their cultures are very different. It would be like confusing Russia with Britain — but I honestly feel that the difference is even greater.

Someday I may write a blog post on the many factors that distinguish China from Japan, but for now I’ll focus on one aspect that’s often misunderstood: language. Language is probably the easiest and fastest way to tell where something is from (written language in particular). It’s also something that’s rarely well understood by those who don’t try to actually learn the language, since languages are so complicated. In addition, language is considered a core element of culture, indeed one of its fundamentals, and a basic way of dividing them.

Does Japan use Chinese characters? Yes. This is a common source of confusion and probably one of the main reasons China and Japan are so often confused with each other. The details, of course, are a little complicated, so I’ll explain.

Chinese characters are logograms, meaning that each one represents a different concept (like “honor”) or thing (like “wall”). They are famous (or notorious) worldwide for their complexity and distinctiveness. In fact, they’re the only logograms that are still used (aside from some minor languages that use Chinese-derived script). While Chinese characters represent things, they also have pronunciations, since those things have their own pronunciations. Confusingly, the pronunciation often changes depending on the context; you have to learn which one to use based on the context. Many Chinese characters look abstractly like the things they represent (like 川, “river,” or 心, “heart”), but most are too complex for that; instead, a typical formula is to use one element (a “radical”) that represents the concept, and another element that gives a clue about the pronunciation. For instance, 腕 (“arm”) contains the “moon” radical (月), mostly used for body parts, and the radical 宛, which shows you that it’s pronounced wan. And just to make it more confusing, the thing Chinese characters represent also changes depending on context; so 明 can mean “clear,” “bright” or “understand.”

China, as the fount of culture in East Asia, spread its writing system to other countries; this included Japan. But the Japanese language is very different from Chinese. Not all of it can be expressed through Chinese characters. As a result, the Japanese developed their own writing systems, hiragana and katakana, to represent these words. Both hiragana and katakana (together called kana) are syllabaries, meaning that each character represents a syllable (so Japanese is thought of as made up of syllables rather than letters). Hiragana looks like this:


And katakana looks like this:


Both were originally derived from Chinese characters, but katakana is a more direct borrowing, as you might be able to tell from the blocky, straight lines. (Some of them, in fact, are just unusually simple Chinese characters.) Historically, katakana has been used more often, but in a series of post-World War II writing reforms hiragana was installed as the main script for representing basic words.

Does that mean katakana is old-fashioned, or no longer used? Hardly! Katakana is still used all the time in Japanese, but to represent foreign or made-up words, or just to write sounds with no obvious meaning. This means that Japanese, uniquely among languages, uses 3 scripts together. And I don’t mean like Serbo-Croatian or Hindustani, either (those languages can use either of 2 different scripts). In order to read Japanese you have to learn all 3 scripts, since they are used together. Reading any Japanese text will confirm this. Here’s a sample:

レゲエ は、狭義においては1960年代後半ジャマイカで発祥し、1980年代前半まで流行したポピュラー音楽である。

The first word is “reggae,” which is foreign, so it’s written in katakana. Katakana appears again with ジャマイカ (Jamaica) and ポピュラー (popular), both English words (the vast majority of the foreign words incorporated into Japanese are English). The Chinese characters you see express difficult or advanced concepts: 狭義 (narrow sense), 発祥 (originate), 音楽 (music). As for the hiragana, they mostly appear as particles, which are very basic 1 or 2 syllable words like は (is), で (in), まで (until), いつ (when), and so on. The final word, ある (“to be”), is an example of something so basic that it’s not usually written in Chinese characters, as is おいて (as for).

Do you have to use all 3 scripts together? No. The two kana sentence examples above prove that. But to Japanese, they look awkward. The hiragana example would almost always be written with several Chinese characters to express advanced concepts. The katakana example is a strained attempt to use cheesy English adjectives to describe a dress (called “one-piece” in Japanese, hence written in katakana). It is certainly possible to stick to kana only (or even just hiragana, if you can manage the difficult task of avoiding foreign loanwords), but in almost any situation, Japanese just don’t do it. (The main exception I can think of are children’s books, since kids can’t read Chinese characters yet.) Foreigners might pull their hair out and gnash their teeth at the prospect of memorizing thousands of Chinese characters that are much more complicated than the kana they could be written as instead, but Japanese don’t care. It is The Way Things Are Done, and many, many hours of elementary school education are devoted to drawing Chinese characters to drill their use into kids’ brains.

Why does Japanese use Chinese characters still? It’s a difficult subject that’s a little too complicated for this blog post, but suffice it to say that it can be easier to read (provided you know the characters) and immediately understand the concepts. The hiragana example sentence above looks like a blur to Japanese speakers; the Chinese characters separate concepts and words more. Japanese contains lots of words that sound the same, but using Chinese characters makes it obvious which meaning is meant. There are lots of opportunities for wordplay that would die if Chinese characters were phased out. And, probably most fundamentally of all, the Japanese are used to it and are uncomfortable with such a drastic change.

While Japan uses Chinese characters, there is a distinction between the Chinese characters used in China (hanzi) and the ones used in Japan (kanji). Kanji were simplified in the aforementioned postwar writing reforms, mostly using shortcut versions common in China. As a result, kanji aren’t quite the same as hanzi. Here are some examples of differences:

Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese Japanese

But that’s not all! As you can see in the table above, there is a distinction between Simplified Chinese characters and Traditional Chinese characters as well. China simplified its characters in the 1950s as a compromise between just switching to the alphabet and grappling with tens of thousands of complicated characters. Other Chinese-speaking countries (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore), overseas Chinese communities, and Korea and Vietnam continue to use Traditional characters. The difference between these characters can be quite drastic, as seen here.

Simplified Traditional

So effectively, there are 3 different kinds of Chinese characters: Simplified, Traditional, and Japanese (kanji). Where do the Japanese variants fall? If you’re interested in learning Chinese characters but aren’t sure which type to choose, I recommend Japanese, actually, since they fall roughly midway between Simplified and Traditional in terms of complexity. They lean Traditional, however; kanji readers have an easier time negotiating Taiwan than China. Those who don’t care about Japanese and just want to learn Chinese usually opt for Simplified given how much more important China is than other Chinese countries. (This wasn’t always the case, though: during Communist rule, China was so closed-off from the outside world that foreigners got more use out of learning Traditional.) The downside is that deciphering Traditional characters is much harder for Simplified-readers than vice versa. In any case, Traditional characters are still sometimes used in China, and anything from before the 1950s obviously uses them, so most students of Chinese pretty much have to learn them both at some point or to a certain extent.

Can Chinese-speakers read Japanese (and vice versa)? Sort of. Since they’re all basically the same characters, Chinese and Japanese can read many of each other’s texts. Simplified characters are hardest for Japanese to decipher. Snatches of phrases, or scattered words or concepts, are decipherable or the same. But entire sentences are hard to figure out. Japanese uses kana, which Chinese don’t know or use; meanwhile, Chinese uses a bunch of characters that Japanese doesn’t (because it substitutes kana for them). Some words are also expressed with different characters in the different languages; the classic example here is 手纸/手紙 (“hand paper”), which means “toilet paper” in Chinese and “letter” in Japanese. Basically, Chinese and Japanese can read parts of each other’s writing, but nowhere near enough to make out long passages.

Besides, even if they could read each other’s languages, they wouldn’t be able to speak them… which brings us to the spoken part of Chinese and Japanese.

This is what spoken Chinese sounds like:

As you can tell, it’s a tonal language. That means vocal tones go up and down while speaking. Each word must be expressed with the right combination of tones to convey the meaning properly. Chinese also contains sounds like dung, huang, sher, bien, chiao, fuhng, and shwei. Examples of Chinese names include Xu Jinglei, Hou Xiaochun, Li Ying, Zhou Nong, and Wang Renmei — in other words, they’re short and usually follow a 1-2 syllable combo. Chinese place-names look like Cao Hai, Xiexing, Ningxia, Yangming Shan, and Qingdao. (Note that they aren’t necessarily pronounced that way. Explaining how Chinese is pronounced is a little off-topic, but for example, “c” is like ts, “x” is like ksh, and “q” is like ch.)

On the other hand, spoken Japanese sounds like this:

Completely different, right? It’s not tonal — vocal tones are consistent and smooth. Japanese generally is more flowing than Chinese, which is choppy. The language also sounds very different; it is very vowel-heavy, and the vowels are the 5 basic ones (a, i, u, e, o). Consonants are also pretty simple, and syllables come in basic combinations (ka, tsu, shi, no, me — nothing like shlang or crap). Examples of Japanese names include Tsutomu Okumoto, Hiroko Kitahashi, Nobuo Okunoki, Fumiko Uchida, and Kenji Shimizu — they’re longer than Chinese (and there are also many more of them). Japanese place-names look like Kyouto, Saitama, Fukuoka, Biwa-ko, and Shikoku. They are easy to pronounce; it was not difficult to figure out how to romanize Japanese (that is, render it in the Roman alphabet).

Despite many similarities in Chinese and Japanese cultures, the languages actually have different roots. Japanese is unrelated to Chinese. In fact, it’s unclear what other languages Japanese is related to (well, probably Korean). It’s even unclear where Japanese people originally came from. The most likely explanation is somewhere in Siberia, leading some scholars to claim linguistic similarities with obscure Siberian peoples and even the Finns (who are way, way, way far away on the other side of Russia).

That being said, there are similarities between spoken Chinese and Japanese too. Japanese imported a lot of Chinese vocabulary along with its characters, and like French vocabulary in English, these words now fill up the Japanese dictionary and make up the bulk of Japanese words. Many of them sound fairly different, however. Here are some examples:

(Mandarin) Chinese Japanese English
gānbēi kanpai Cheers!
(pronounced “ssuh”) shi four
dìguó teikoku empire
ānquán anzen safety

Note that this flow wasn’t just 1-way, either: after Japan’s epochal Meiji Revolution, when it opened up to European influences and modernized, China adopted a bunch of words for “modern” concepts like “revolution” (Japanese: kakumei; Chinese: geming) and “telephone” (Japanese: denwa; Chinese: dianhua) from Japanese.

Does all this seem confusing to you? In fact, there are a few factors I still haven’t considered. 1 is other Chinese languages. You see, the language commonly known as “Chinese” is actually Mandarin, the official and dominant Chinese language. But there are others, like Wu, Cantonese and Xiang, and they have their own sounds while sharing the Chinese characters. It’s hard for foreigners to tell from the characters whether the language is Mandarin or something else. And then there’s Korean, which sounds sort of like Japanese but has sounds and a cadence all its own. It stands out clearly from its neighbor languages with its distinctive writing system, hangeul, full of circles and short lines.

But I think those are too much for this blog post. You shouldn’t have to be an expert to tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. Remember these basic facts:

  • Spoken Chinese is tonal and choppy and uses comparatively short names.
  • Spoken Japanese is not tonal and flows and uses simpler sounds than Chinese and comparatively long names.
  • Written Chinese uses complex characters. If they’re more simple, they’re from China; if they’re more complex, they’re from somewhere else (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.).
  • Written Japanese uses both Chinese characters and simpler kana symbols together.

Yes, there are ways of telling from the specific Chinese characters used, but for ordinary people this is probably asking too much. Thank you for reading, and good luck!


China Smog

Image source: Imgur

China’s economic development over the past 40 years has been nothing less than astounding. 660 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1981. Its economy has doubled on average every 7 years. Today China exports as much in 1 day as in an entire year when it first opened to the global economy. It is one of the world’s economic engines, and it continues to be a model for rapid development for emerging countries regardless of its current economic and fiscal issues.

But with rapid development comes great costs, as we saw earlier in Indonesia. The environment gets ravaged and damaged at a rate as furious as wealth gets created and money gets exchanged. Tragically, China has also become a poster child for the environmental consequences of frenzied economic growth and development.

As Mark Elvin documents in The Retreat of the Elephants, China’s disregard for the environment has deep historical roots. It’s been under strong central government rule and an intensive agricultural society for a very long time (since the beginning of civilization, in fact). China spread by chopping down its forests, farming its fields and diverting water to irrigate them. Animals like elephants were driven to the edges and wiped out (often eaten). While it’s true that Chinese poetry and art have detailed and sentimental depictions of nature and China’s amazing scenery, a Chinese tradition of ecological devastation and environmental exploitation is at least as old and noticeable.

This destruction only accelerated under Communist rule. China became determined to finally catch up with the West, and the resulting “Great Leap Forward” program threw all caution to the wind. A campaign to encourage backyard iron smelting made smokestacks sprout all over the countryside. A campaign to eradicate obnoxious pests like sparrows led to a pest of locusts instead. A massive dam was built over the Yellow River at Sanmenxia, leading to increased silting of an already very silty river. Deep plowing techniques exhausted the soil and contributed to erosion.

Communism is a fading memory in modern China, but the assault on the environment continues. The most visible sign of this is undoubtedly air pollution. Anyone who flies into China probably notices the thick haze that blankets much of the east (the important part). In China’s major cities, more often than not, the sun is blotted out by a low-lying layer of clouds. Although this was traditionally described as “fog,” it’s actually smog.

Power Plant

A coal power plant in Inner Mongolia. Image source: ChinaHush

China’s horrendous smog comes from a variety of factors. One of the chief culprits is coal, which is China’s main power source. 80% of China’s power comes from coal power plants, and China is responsible for half of coal power generation in the world. Coal blocks are also frequently burned for heat in Chinese homes in the winter. All this means a lot of massive smokestacks scattered around the east, spewing odious black smoke into the sky. Then there are the cars. While China is traditionally a biking country and Chinese still bike often, with increased wealth many people have bought cars too. But since “many people” adds up to over 300 million in a country as humongous as China, that’s a lot of engines pumping a lot of exhaust.

These 2 factors are the most prominent, but there are a bunch of minor ones. The other fossil fuels (oil and gas) are burned frequently too. Noxious gas vapors escape from nozzles during fueling in gas stations. China’s many, many, many factories and mines usually pollute in some way or another. Restaurants pump their black smoke into the air. Construction sites (of which there are many) spread dust. Farmers traditionally burn leftover straw on the same week each year, adding more smoky haze each time. The Yellow Valley takes its name from yellow dust called loess that drifts through the air each spring, an environmental phenomenon that’s given northern China bad air since time immemorial anyway.

Vehicle exhaust, smoggy power plants and dust are common worldwide. Industrializing countries usually belch out a fair bit of pollution. But China is almost a perfect storm of pollutants exacerbated by frenzied development and dense population. It was bad enough to make organizers worried about the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, which compelled them to crack down on driving in that city during the games. But the problem’s gotten even more severe in recent years, with air quality and visibility in Beijing descending into catastrophically bad levels. On really bad days you can’t even see the other side of the street, and breathing outside is like smoking cigarettes. Many people opt to just say inside; those who venture out wear masks.

Lake Dongting

Lake Dongting in central east China. Image source:

Manufacturing and industry have also taken their toll on China’s water. Toxic chemicals are regularly pumped into rivers and lakes, wiping out fish and making it hard for people to get drinking supplies. Rivers have turned lurid red or pitch black or bloomed green with algae. Lake Tai, a major lake in the Yangzi Delta area, has been polluted by a combination of cyanobacteria, algae, garbage and toxic waste. Some farmers find their skin blistering and peeling away from contact with their irrigation water. The Yangzi river dolphin and Chinese alligator are probably on the road to extinction, at least in part due to foul water. Countless small streams have died under the deluge of chemicals, grime, garbage and poop and the effect of intensive diversion. China’s major rivers — the Yellow, the Yangzi, the Huai, the Pearl, take your pick — have all been beleaguered under the twin assaults of disgusting industrial discharge and unsustainable commercial and residential use. The people of the Huai valley wrote this poem to summarize the gradual corruption of their water:

In the ’50s, we washed our food in the clear river.
In the ’60s, we irrigated our fields with its waters.
In the ’70s, we saw our river turn black and oily.
In the ’80s, we watched dead fish float to the surface.
In the ’90s, we too started to fall sick.

The usual Chinese response to this devastation has been, as before, disregard. China is overwhelmingly focused on economic growth. Most ordinary Chinese people worry more about making money than breathing clean air or swimming in clean water. The government is determined to make China great again, and this means more factories, more jobs, and more cars on the roads. As the “fog” misnomer exemplifies, it has waved away even the most obvious signs of pollution and even denied and covered up the health problems that inevitably follow from it.

But by the 2010s, ignoring the problems has become harder and harder. Partly this is because the worst days of smog in Beijing are just that unendurable; people stay home and restrict their breathing when they venture outside. Outrages in the provinces could be swept under the rug by corrupt local officials, but the national government can hardly ignore the consequences of its own policies in Beijing. It’s also because the growth of social media, especially a microblogging site called Weibo, has provided a handy forum for people to vent about their local pollution problems. Last year the CCTV journalist Chai Jing produced an Inconvenient Truth-style documentary about the pollution crisis called Under the Dome (after the American TV series). The government took it offline after a few weeks, but not before it had racked up 300 million views — an impressive achievement for a country with around 700 million Internet users. (If you’d like to watch it — and I highly recommend it — you can see it here).

China Smog 2

This personal photo of the Yi River near Luoyang gives a more representative picture of what smog in China looks like.

So what can be done about this? The good news is that China is definitely trying to clean up its act. In the past, complaints from foreigners about its greenhouse gas production were countered by whining about how the West had developed by ravaging the environment and polluting the atmosphere, so it was China’s turn now. Now China is much more cooperative in international climate change conferences and makes pledges to cut its emissions. China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, has made pollution one of the government’s key priorities. Efforts are being made to reduce the country’s dependence on coal power and promote other fossil fuels. China is also the world’s biggest market for renewable energy, like wind, solar, biofuels and geothermal, and the government invested $125 billion into it in 2012 and ’13. Private companies are rushing into the renewable energy field and sometimes succeed. Xinjiang, China’s vast northwest desert, is a tempting source of both sunlight for solar power and wind for windmills. The government is also upgrading the country’s energy grid to be more efficient. No matter how much contempt the government might have for its subjects, smog affects everyone, and the frequency with which pollution prompts protests pushes it to act.

But it’s easy to get discouraged too. One of China’s general problems is a lack of law enforcement, and this definitely comes into play with the environment. China has a Ministry of Environmental Protection, but it’s toothless and takes a back seat to other ministries. Corruption and fraud are endemic; polluting truck drivers lie about their emission ratings and officials don’t follow up with major polluters’ pledges to clean up. The oil industry has deep influence in the government (it is dominated by state-owned enterprises) and pushes for lax emissions standards. China is extremely censorious, and no matter how worried officials might be about pollution, their impulse to silence critics or even whistle-blowers is strong. The Under the Dome story is one example of this; another is pollution levels in Beijing, which were only exposed for how awful they really are thanks to the US Embassy.

The biggest problem might simply be the government’s priorities. China is determined to industrialize and grow. Partly this is the result of a national determination to catch up with the West and Japan and assert Chinese greatness. The industrialization drives of Mao Zedong, China’s dictator from 1949 to 1976, were designed to catch up to British steel production; America is now the country China targets as a rival to surpass. It’s also the real justification for the Communist Party’s rule; widespread prosperity and economic opportunity have won it popularity. Any economic slowdown is considered a national security risk because it undercuts the Party’s legitimacy. So local officials are graded and promoted based on how good their jurisdiction’s economic statistics are. It might seem like a meritocratic system of governance in the best Chinese tradition, but it’s also an incentive for shoveling money into smog-belching factories, mines and power plants.

China’s future is uncertain. This makes it both a fascinating and devilishly frightening country to study. Its environmental prospects are no different. Some observers (like Mark L. Clifford) are optimistic, pointing to the increased political and financial support for innovative, environmentally friendly companies and the high risks of perpetuating polluting firms (pollution is estimated to cost China about 10% of its GDP). Others (Elizabeth Economy, Jonathan Watts) remain pessimistic, thanks to the above factors and things like the Chinese leadership’s love of big, fancy, expensive and impressive engineering projects and the sheer size of China’s population and its hunger for stuff. I waffle, but lean more towards pessimism, given how dire China’s pollution problem was already by the ’90s and ’00s and how blatantly the government ignored it then. But China’s response will probably be schizophrenic; it has both jailed or beaten up critics and whistle-blowers (for making it look bad) and acted on their concerns (to prevent criticism from spreading… or maybe out of sympathy too).

China’s frustrations should be understandable. The world has followed this path before. Britain, America, and Eastern Europe have all coped with soot-black air and poisonous water before; other developing countries, like India, grapple with identical issues now. China still produces less greenhouse gas per person than the West. A lot of that smog is produced by foreign companies operating factories in China but ignoring environmental regulations because they can. So constant China-bashing over pollution is unfair. But it is also the world’s biggest and most problematic polluter, and until serious health outrages like whole villages stricken with cancer or a river choked with 6,000 pig carcasses subside, environmentalists (or anyone, really) will keep haranguing it, both at home and abroad.

Who knows? Pollution might revive China’s love of moustaches.


South China Sea

Image source: The Economist

The rise of China has unsettled much of the world and especially its neighbors, since like most rising powers it’s making its newfound strength and influence felt overseas. Chinese investment in Africa is so substantial at this point that it’s propping up entire countries. The Chinese alliance with Pakistan is tighter than ever, and China wants to build an oil pipeline across Pakistan to open up a backdoor route for its precious oil supply. China’s support for North Korea keeps that rickety regime erect despite international fury over its temper tantrums and crime. China’s hatred for Japan flares up from time to time through territorial disputes and complaints about Japan’s handling of its own war history.

But most of all, it’s the dispute in the South China Sea that disturbs the region, since more than anything else it shows that China wants to be the regional hegemon (dominant power) and doesn’t care who stands in its way. Let’s look at how this dispute flared up and consider whether it’s serious.

East Asia is fundamentally different from, say, Europe, because of its geography. The area is much bigger and more spread out. China takes up the bulk of the landmass, India most of the rest. Aside from the 5 countries of mainland Southeast Asia hanging underneath China, the rest of the countries are islands and peninsulas separated from each other and with very different histories and outlooks. In the center of Southeast Asia, though, is the South China Sea, which connects China with Vietnam, the Philippines, and, at the southern end, Borneo. It’s always been a very important stage for trade, since it’s easiest to approach China from the south (unless you’re northern nomads). It’s also how China has historically projected its influence over Southeast Asia. Chinese trade binds the region together, and Chinese settlers play important roles all over Southeast Asia, including in Vietnam and the Philippines, the main South China Sea countries. But for the most part, the countries ignored each other; there was never a Chinese imperial expansion southwards into Southeast Asia.* The countries mostly developed according to their own rhythms and cultures.

BUT… There are two groups of tiny islands in the South China Sea, and both of them are far enough away from land to make them hot-button issues to fight over. The Paracels are located between China and Vietnam. The Spratlys are pretty much in the middle of the sea (but pretty far from China). (Both of these groups have other names in local languages, which I won’t use here to be neutral.) To be blunt, it’s unclear who controlled these islands in premodern times. Most likely, it was nobody; they’re far from land and mostly of interest to passing fishermen. But there are overlapping claims and conflicting historical records that have fueled an ongoing dispute.

The disputes have raged on and off throughout the 1900s, but the stakes have risen in this decade as the countries around the sea have gotten more aggressive in defending their claims and sailing into the troubled waters. All involved are guilty of a certain degree of stubbornness, unrealistic claims, and arrogance, but one country has rattled more nerves than anyone else. I’ll bet you can guess which one.

Going by pure geography, China has a fairly weak claim to the sea — it has a smallish coastline along it and it’s far from the Spratlys. It does have historical records claiming the islands, but without settling them it’s hard to prove a strong connection. Also, China’s conception of foreign relations was a bit different in the imperial era; it saw itself as the only country that mattered, with most others as tributaries or satellites, and claimed places that would be surprised to be considered Chinese today.

Sand 1

Chinese dredgers expand a reef in the Spratly Islands, and widen its entrance, from 2012 to 2015. Image source: Center for Strategic and International Studies


But China has a strong claim in another category: raw military strength. Where once the occasional Chinese fishing boat sailed, coast guard ships patrolled instead. Now the Chinese navy roams the sea, intimidating other navies and muscling them out. (It kicked South Vietnamese soldiers off of the Paracels in 1974 when their country was falling apart and North Vietnam was too dependent on Chinese help to object.) Its navy has occupied Scarborough Shoal, a shoal not very far from the Philippines, since 2012, after reneging on an agreement for both China and the Philippines to pull back. An airstrip and city administration (that governs maybe a thousand people) has been built on Woody Island in the Paracels. The navy has been engaged in large-scale dredging operations in the Spratlys for the past 2 years, most likely to make the shallow atolls and inlets there into full-fledged islands, capable of housing…?

It should not be too hard to understand why this territorial dispute is the hottest one China’s involved in now. Look at the map above. China’s claim is by far the most aggressive, covering 90% of the sea. It basically restricts the other countries around it to their own narrow coastlines. It’s the equivalent of a big guy coming over to a table ringed by squabbling customers and scooping up all the food there. What makes matters worse is China’s haughty attitude toward the complaints it gets: it both thunders that there is no dispute to talk about and explodes when foreigners are found in “its” waters. China’s aggression has united the other countries in opposition to it, and they regularly complain about Chinese maneuvers in the region’s various forums. These never go anywhere and often degenerate into bickering and bad blood on all sides.

Why is China — and for that matter, everyone else — acting so assertively? In part, it’s nationalism. After enduring a century of humiliation by unexpectedly stronger foreign powers, China is determined to carve out a bigger place for itself in the world, and the South China Sea is a tempting target. Heck, it even has China’s name on it. Nationalism is a powerful force in other countries as well, and it makes it hard for any government to back down when it looks like it’s being pushed around. But the South China Sea is also a vital passageway, even more so now than before. Europe and East Asia are 2 of the world’s most critical economic regions, and most of the maritime traffic between them passes through the South China Sea (1/3 of all maritime traffic in the world, actually). Arabia and Iran are also west of China, and that means their precious, precious oil passes through the South China Sea. 80% of China’s oil comes through these waters. Finally, the South China Sea is rich in natural resources. There’s a medley of fish swimming through the ocean to tempt Asia’s seafood lovers, but also a bounty of oil and natural gas. China estimates up to 130 billion barrels of oil might lie under there.

The military aspect of this whole conflict is what makes observers increasingly nervous. The Chinese navy easily outclasses all of its rivals in the area. All the dredging and land-expansion could be put to use for military purposes. If the Paracels and Spratlys are turned into Chinese naval bases, China would be able to project its power into Southeast Asia and engage in a bit of old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy. Its attitude has basically been to ignore international law (it didn’t even show up in court last year when the Philippines sued it over its claims and activities) and rely on force to get its way. Since it’s way stronger than any of its rivals, this is a dangerous tactic. It’s pushed the members of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the region’s multinational grouping) closer together than ever before – but that still might not be enough to face China down.

So what stands in the way of China exerting mastery over the waves? America, the post-World War II guarantor of stability in East Asia. America, despite its close alliance with the Philippines, doesn’t officially take a position in the dispute. But its attitude has tilted it decidedly against China. It wants to preserve freedom of navigation in the sea, which basically means letting its ships sail through it unhindered. A UN convention backs it up on this, but China claims the area around the Paracels and Spratlys as its territorial waters and harasses any ships that sail through them. This hasn’t stopped America from doing so in the past year, even though the diplomatic reaction from China was fierce. America has also sided with ASEAN in the regional forums that it can participate in. (Awkwardly, America itself hasn’t even ratified the UN convention on this.)

This does put Southeast Asia in an awkward position, though. As angry as it is at China and its “What are you gonna do about it, punk?” position, it can’t reasonably stand up to it. China is the dominant power in the region, after all. It has become East Asia’s economic dynamo. It has major commercial ties and investment throughout Southeast Asia. As galling as it may be, Southeast Asia would probably rather cede the sea than risk war over some sand. ASEAN’s M.O. has always been to emphasize geniality and commonality rather than address conflict, and it doesn’t have many levers to pull against China. All it can reasonably do is rely on America — and despite what some Americans say, its interest in the region is debatable, whereas for China it’s a core national interest.

Whether China actually seeks to dominate Southeast Asia as an imperial power is in doubt. It could just be trying to secure shipping lanes and planting the flag in a few specks of sand in the middle of the sea. But countries with growing economies and increasing worldwide investments tend to take steps to secure those investments with force. The relevant historical analogue here might be America itself 100 years ago. In 1898, it threw Spain out of its last colonies in the New World, Cuba and Puerto Rico. It then colonized Puerto Rico, set up a naval base in Cuba, and instigated a revolt in Panama so it’d be allowed to build a canal there. The Caribbean Sea became “an American lake” – a sea patrolled by the American navy, which was used to back up American investment in the Caribbean’s islands and even attack them when they didn’t do what America wanted. Along with America’s annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines, that was how the US took its first steps toward becoming a superpower.

Of course, at the time the US had presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, who crowed about American supremacy and took active steps to subjugate the Caribbean and Central America. China has steadily preached noninterference in foreign matters and denies any imperial intentions. After moving an oil rig into Vietnamese waters in 2014 provoked anti-Chinese riots, it’s come to realize the costs of its aggression and has been trying recently to present a kinder, more understanding face to Southeast Asia. It might not be too hard for China to portray America as the aggressor in the conflict – or, you know, for the US to actually be the aggressor, given its record.

The South China Sea dispute is a complicated issue. Figuring out how to untangle the overlapping claims and defuse the roiling national pride there would not be easy. (I haven’t even mentioned Taiwan, who also makes China’s expansive claims on the grounds that it, as the Republic of China, made the same claims back when it controlled China. Even though it doesn’t really border the South China Sea now.) It’s also important to recognize that China already is the dominant power in East Asia, and Great Powers usually look after their strategic weaknesses and hot spots carefully. But the international consensus, even outside of Southeast Asia, is that China is behaving aggressively and even imperialistically. Its coded message seems to be that might makes right. Its refusal to even discuss the issue screams that it lacks regard for its neighbors, some of whom (like Vietnam) have historic distrust of China already. For all the misgivings Southeast Asia collectively has about American military power there, it’s obviously leaning towards America in the overarching Sino-American showdown. (Vietnam has been noticeably cozying up to it, and the Philippines is welcoming American forces back there after a 2-decade absence.) The American-led international order has served it well since World War II, and China is an unknown, and somewhat worrying, factor.

So when America speaks of “pivoting” or “rebalancing” its attention towards East Asia, the South China Sea is definitely an area of concern. Like Ukraine, it’s not an issue America (or anyone else) really wants to inflame into open war, but also like Ukraine, America sees it as an important test of its will to stand up to cocky, unfriendly rising powers. Unless someone backs down, open war is what it might come to.

*The exception being Vietnam. There was also a Chinese invasion of Java at one point, but it failed and that was when China was under Mongol rule anyway.