The List

Hot Rocks

Asia's most controversial islands.

SENKAKU/DIAOYU/DIAOYUTAI

Location: Northeast of Taiwan in the East China Sea

Claimed by: Japan, China, Taiwan

The dispute: Diaoyu means "fishing platform" in Chinese, and there are records of these small rocks in Chinese navigation documents as far back as the 15th century. Japan's legal claim on the islands dates to 1895 (though some documents say it was earlier), when Taiwan and its surrounding islets were ceded to Japan at the end of the Sino-Japanese War. Tokyo formally incorporated them into Japanese territory shortly afterward.

After World War II, however, Japan ceded Taiwan and the Paracels (see below) back to China. And because Diaoyu was traditionally part of Taiwanese territory, the government in Taipei believes it has claim to the islands. Complicating matters further, because Beijing views Taiwan as part of Chinese territory, it also claims the islands. However, in 1970, the United States and Japan signed a treaty reverting occupied Okinawa back to Japanese control which, unlike the treaty signed after World War II, explicitly mentioned Senkaku as Japanese territory. Japan cites this bilateral agreement as legal backing for its claim.

The dispute would be little more than a historical curiosity if not for the sizable gas deposits believed to be located near the islands.

The territorial dispute has flared ever since with Japan expelling Chinese fishing boats from the region and Japanese nationalists traveling to the island to build a lighthouse in 1990. And in September, the dispute once again came to a head when a Chinese fishing boat captain was arrested after colliding with a Japanese warship, prompting the bitterest Sino-Japanese diplomatic standoff in decades.

DOKDO/TAKESHIMA/LIANCOURT ROCKS

Location: In the Japan Sea, about 117 miles east of the Korean coast

Claimed by: South Korea, Japan

The dispute: Known as the Liancourt Rocks to Westerners, this group of volcanic islets is known as Dokdo or "Lonely islands" in Korean and Takeshima, or "Bamboo islands" in Japanese. There are only two permanent residents on the islands -- an elderly Korean fisherman and his wife whose presence is described by Tokyo as an "illegal occupation." Nonetheless, Liancourt's symbolic importance and potentially rich energy deposits have made the islands a flashpoint in Japanese-Korean relations for more than half a century.

The islands were part of Korean territory annexed by Japanese forces during their conquest of the Korean peninsula in 1905. Japan lost control of Korean territory after World War II, and Seoul has stationed Korean Coast Guard troops around the islands since the 1950s as a symbol of ownership. Naval standoffs have been increasingly frequent in recent years, though air and naval forces have stopped short of firing at each other. Japan has so far rejected a 60-year-old proposal by Seoul to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice for resolution.

The nationalist passions the islands provoke can sometimes be extreme. In 2005, when the Japanese prefecture of Shimane declared a "Takeshima Day" holiday, a South Korean mother and son sliced off their fingers in protest in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.  

THE KURILS

Location: Stretching from Japan's Hokkaido Island to Russia's Kamchatka peninsula

Claimed by: Russia, Japan

The dispute: Fifty years after the conclusion of World War II, Japan and Russia have still never signed a peace treaty, the obstacle being the four southernmost Kuril Islands, which Japan calls its "northern territories." Russia and China fought over the Kurils as far back as the 1700s, when fur-trappers and fishermen began to explore the region. In 1875, Russia agreed to hand over the Kurils to Japan in exchange for control of the much larger Sakhalin Island, which lies closer to the Russian mainland.

But Japan won control of half of Sakhalin during the 1904 Russo-Japanese war, which Russia claims nullifies the original treaty. In the treaty of San Francisco that Japan signed with the Allies in 1951, Tokyo gave up its claim to the Kurils. But the treaty refused to recognize Soviet control of the islands, which led Stalin's negotiators to withdraw from the conference. The international agreement didn't stop the Soviets from taking control and an estimated 17,000 Japanese were expelled from the islands when the Soviets invaded. Russia has encouraged citizens to move to the islands because of its rich fishing and mineral wealth, and nearly 17,000 Russian and indigenous people live there today. The ownership of the Kurils has remained unresolved ever since.

Tensions were reignited in recent weeks when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the islands, prompting an angry Japanese government to temporarily withdraw its ambassador from Moscow in protest.

THE PARACEL ISLANDS

Location: Roughly equidistant from Vietnam and China in the South China Sea

Claimed by: China, Vietnam

The dispute: This chain of about 30 islets and reefs in the South China Sea hasbeen one of the main points of contention between two erstwhile Cold War allies. There's evidence of Chinese habitation on the islands as far back as the eighth century Tan dynasty, though today it is occupied only by Chinese military personnel. The cluster of small rock islands and reefs was claimed by France as part of French Indochina in 1887 over strong Chinese protests.

In 1956, with the support of the Communist North Vietnamese government, Beijing declared its sovereignty over the islands, though this claim was largely moot as the South Vietnamese government continued to maintain a small military presence there. Things came to a head during 1974's "Battle of the Paracels," when South Vietnam dispatched warships to force the Chinese military out of the area. The Chinese forces, which were supported by the North Vietnamese, easily repelled the South Vietnamese and consolidated Beijing's control over the islands, though Vietnam has continued the diplomatic dispute

In the past year, Chinese authorities have repeatedly arrested Vietnamese fishermen near the islands, prompting angry protests from Hanoi. 

THE SPRATLY ISLANDS

Location: In the South China Sea, about two-thirds of the way from Vietnam to the Philippines

Claimed by: China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei

The dispute: It might almost be easier to list the East Asian countries that don't have a claim on this chain of about 100 islets, reefs, and sea mounts. Competing claims on the islands and the surrounding waters began in the 1930s when the region's abundant resources, including gas, oil, and fish, became apparent. Since the 1950s, 29 oil fields and four gas fields have been developed in the Spratly area.

The various actors' claims differ, though only China is bold enough to claim all the islands (based on Han dynasty navigation records dating back to 110 A.D.). The Spratly Islands were claimed by the Japanese during World War II but Tokyo makes no claim on them today. The islands are uninhabited by civilians, though China, Vietnam, and the Philippines have all stationed troops on the islands they control. The dispute has led to violence at times: In 1998 when Chinese and Japanese naval vessels fought over a disputed reef, more than 70 sailors were killed. 

A joint resolution in 1992 by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations committed the parties to attempt to resolve the disputes peacefully, but many countries continue to accuse China of using its military muscle to consolidate control over the entire island chain.

KIM JAE-MYOUNG/AFP/Getty Images; NIHON SEINENSHA/AFP/Getty Images; MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images; Flickr user nlann; ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

The List

'The Arabs (and Indians and Chinese) Are Coming!'

With so many touching xenophobic and foreigner-baiting attack ads, it's hard to pick favorites. Here are five of the best as the midterm elections get ugly.

It's late October election season: The trees are losing their leaves, parents are wrapping their kids in scarves for the chilly walk to school, and politicians are now openly accusing their opponents of selling orphans' kidneys on the Chinese black market to fund al-Qaeda-planned gay wedding chapels at Ground Zero. With only a few days left before the United States' Nov. 2 election day, political ads -- on which nearly $4 billion, or just shy of the GDP of Zimbabwe, will have been spent by election day -- have predictably reached their debased, atavistic nadir.

This year, with the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate at stake, boundaries of decency have not only been crossed but trampled on and possibly waterboarded at an undisclosed location. Senators are buying Viagra for child molesters. Aqua Buddhas are threatening Christianity. And plenty of candidates and allied organizations are reaching for the old standby of political fearmongering: the foreigner.

Between the Chinese bankers taking over America, amorous Iranian dictators, and job-stealing Indians (who have apparently taken them from the job-stealing Mexicans), it's hard to see a single "Daisy" ad -- a defining television spot that can decisively swing a previously close race -- emerging in this year's crop. But who knows? The election isn't until Tuesday, and four days is an eternity in political mudslinging. Here's a sampling of the year's greatest, dirtiest hits.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

"They work for us."

January's Supreme Court verdict in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was a game changer for election advertisements: No longer would candidates be restricted in the amount of money they could raise from corporate donors. Outside groups, (including the parties' respective campaign committees) have responded by dumping an estimated $430 million into races this year.

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a "private, non-profit organization" whose mission is to "eliminate waste, mismanagement, and inefficiency in the federal government," has taken its message to the airwaves, loudly protesting what it considers to be excessive government spending and a bloated federal budget deficit. The group's ad is set in the year 2030 and shows a Chinese professor lecturing a group of students on the downfalls of great empires: "America tried to spend and tax itself out of a great recession. Enormous so-called 'stimulus' spending, massive changes to health care, government takeovers of private industries, and crushing debt," he tells the enraptured group of Chinese youths. "Of course," he continues, "we owned most of their debt, so now they work for us."

Yes, one of the students seems to have a pretty cool next-generation iPad (made in China, no doubt), but the Chinese Prof. Evil is muddying up his facts: Most economists agree that the deficit is a growing problem, though were it not for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the U.S. economy might otherwise have entirely collapsed, resulting in significantly more debt than the stimulus ever created. As for health care, the picture is mixed: The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that this year's reform bill will significantly reduce the deficit in coming years, but critics counter that it's just not true.

And just in case you were tempted to suppose that this future China in this ad is a liberal democratic one, there's no missing the enormous communist flag billowing behind the lecturing professor. 

"Guys like this."

This year's race for Florida's eighth congressional district is one of the most hotly contested of the midterm election cycle -- but it would have been even more interesting if only Dan Fanelli had actually won the Republican primary.

In his GOP primary campaign against incumbent Democrat, Alan Grayson, Fanelli put out a series of some of the most outrageously unsubtle ads of the season called "Simple Facts." Each of the three ads focused on the threat of terrorism and the "need" for racial profiling. The first ad in the series begins with Fanelli standing in front of a small plane in an airplane hanger. He looks directly into the camera and says: "I'm Dan Fanelli. This is an airplane. And this," he says pausing to yank up an olive-skinned man with explosives prominently strapped to his chest -- "is a terrorist. Send me to Washington ... and I'll make sure guys like this get nowhere near things like this," he says, pointing to the airplane. 

In Fanelli's next ad he's in the same airplane hanger, only this time he's standing between an elderly white businessman and the same olive-skinned man, though this time looking tough in a black muscle T-shirt. Here, at least, though heralding the logic of racial profiling, Fanelli manages some self-deprecating humor: "Let's face it. If a good-looking, ripped guy without much hair was flying airplanes into the Twin Towers, I'd have no problem being pulled out of line at the airport." Yes, he's a little thin on top. No comment on the good-looking, ripped part. 

In the third and final ad we're back in the hanger again, but this time our olive-skinned friend appears co-conspirator who seems to be handy building bombs. Or putting a top on a thermos. The two men speak to each other in Arabic. One terrorist instructs the other how to take advantage of the supple U.S. court system after committing an attack: "After you spill the blood of the infidels, you will allow yourself to be captured. We will use the infidel's lawyers and Miranda rights to spread our message. Then you will go to God."

Speaking of which, thank god Fanelli lost in the primary to Dan Webster, who is currently leading Grayson in the polls.

"Dead Aim."

Lest one think only Republicans engage in tough-guy talk, Joe Manchin, the Democratic candidate for West Virginia's vacant Senate seat, has brought his gun along. Manchin locks and loads, takes aim, and then fires a perfectly placed shot through a piece of paper reading "Cap and Trade Bill." Take that climate change legislation! I'll take "dead aim" at the policy,  he tells viewers, because it's "bad for West Virginia." (The state's economy relies heavily on its coal-mining industry.)

Manchin's ad got some free publicity during Jon Stewart's Oct. 27 interview with President Obama, with the Daily Show show host saying he had done a double take when he realized the ad was put out by a Democrat. But Manchin's campaign strategy seems to be working: Within the last two weeks, he has seen a dramatic surge in support, and now looks primed to defeat Republican John Raese.

"Young Mattie Fein."

You've got to applaud Republican Mattie Fein for trying, but her 90-second political parody of Mel Brooks's 1974 comedy classic Young Frankenstein is just bizarre. But hey, Fein hails from California, the land of B-movies and starving screenwriters. 

Fein's unusual advertisement targets Democrat Jane Harman, cast here as the diabolical German-accented "Frau Harman." Fein catches her in the cellar of a Gothic castle plotting to release Frankenstein -- which, of course, symbolizes "dual-use" nuclear technology to Iran. Obviously.

The ad is intended to remind voters, and Gene Wilder fans, of allegations that Harman owned shares of a company that sells electronics equipment to Iran. For good measure, Fein throws in a grab-bag of other charges: from the prosaic (Frau Harman supported TARP), to the incendiary (Harman is a war-profiteer), to the all-out gonzo (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is Harman's boyfriend?). Polls don't give Fein much of a chance, but she'll at least have gone down in style.

"Good for India and China."

"Pro-outsourcing" is always a reliably effective epithet to throw at a politician who supports free trade. But with the current economic climate in the United States, frustration over jobs losses can easily translate into anxiety over the rising geopolitical ambitions of those "exotic" and "menacing" countries of the East: India and China.

In this ad Bobby Schilling, the Republican challenger to incumbent Democratic Congressman Phil Hare in the 17th district of Illinois, is charged with creating jobs (hey, that doesn't sound so bad)...in India and China. Zing! Yes, Schilling is on the record supporting a pending free trade agreement with South Korea, but the ad also casts his stance against any and all income tax increases as a sop to companies that outsource jobs to Asia. Meager pickings, but reason enough, apparently, to declare Schilling bad for the good residents of Illinois. No word yet on Schilling's poll numbers in Shanghai.