A dangerous game of political chess is brewing in the Eastern Sea

A Chinese ship, left, shoots water cannon at a Vietnamese vessel (right) while a Chinese Coast Guard ship (centre) sails alongside. Chinese ships are ramming at Vietnamese vessels trying to stop Beijing from setting up an oil rig in the South China Sea. Picture: AP/Vietnam Coast Guard Source: AAP

It would almost be laughable if the consequences weren’t so potentially dangerous. The conflict in the South China Sea continues to intensify as each country moves to assert their dominance. Territorial disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have flared on and off for years, but some nations have more power than others. In the case of Taiwan, it lacks the financial resources, military might and diplomatic influence to risk a direct confrontation with China, so the government has taken an unusual approach to make sure it stays in the game.

It is just one of six nations vying for a piece of the Spratly archipelago, a group of islands and reefs off the coast of Malaysia and the Philippines. China has been building artificial islands in the area to try and extend its dominance, as well as testing hypersonic glide vehicles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Amid this threatening atmosphere, other countries with less power and resources are making unusual moves to protect their interests. Taiwan’s novel approach has been to put its funding towards cutting carbon emissions. It is building $1.29 million worth of solar panels on Taiping Island. The sea’s largest natural islet, which is 1.4km long and 400m wide, is dominated by coconut and papaya trees and does not generate much pollution. But because China claims sovereignty of Taiwan itself, using its economic clout to bar countries throughout the world from establishing diplomatic relations with Taipei, the government relies on soft power to gain recognition.