A small chain of rocky, barely-inhabited islands in the East China Sea has been the subject of international conflict since the 19th century, with tensions creeping toward a boiling point in recent months. The debate around the Senkaku Islands (referred to as the Diaoyu Islands in China and Taiwan) centers on their sovereignty, with China, Japan and Taiwan all claiming ownership of the territory. Though Japan had retained a relatively uncontested authority over the islands since 1885, a 1968 maritime survey of the surrounding area suggested the presence of oil and gas reserves under the islands. This discovery sparked decades of dispute over which country has rightful ownership of the rocky shores that comprise less than three square miles.
The Senkaku Islands appear to have remained independent from any state’s authority until the end of the 19th century. An 1885 survey of the islands determined they were uninhabited and unclaimed, at which time Japan asserted its ownership of them shortly before the end of the Sino-Japanese War, according to an article from the Stanford News Service. For several decades, neither China nor Taiwan made challenges to Japan’s acquisition.
A maritime survey published by United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) in 1968 suggested the presence of vast oil reserves under the islands, and suddenly international interest in ownership of the islands was imminent. Neighboring China and Taiwan began to advocate for authority over the islands, citing factors like historical ownership and geographic rights to the territory.
The U.S., which had briefly controlled the islands after its victory in World War II, signed the Okinawa Reversion Agreement in 1971, which effectively relinquished control of the islands to Japan. This spurred China and Taiwan to both publicly declared their ownership of the islands later that year.
In 2012 the Japanese government purchased three of the islands from a private owner, causing Chinese officials to retaliate, arguing it was an illegal sale. Chinese vessels and aircrafts were subsequently deployed to the East China Sea in order to establish a visible challenge to Japan’s control of the islands. Another significant challenge came in November 2013, when Chinese officials declared a new “Air Defense Identification Zone.” The zone is essentially a protected air space established by China’s defense ministry, which announced in warning, “aircraft entering the zone must obey its rules or face ‘emergency defensive measures,’” according to the BBC. According to The Economist, this is a potentially contentious move, as the defense area established by China overlaps with the Senkaku Islands.
Tensions have continued to increase throughout the last few months between Japanese and Chinese forces. In December 2016, Chinese officials claimed that Japanese military aircrafts intentionally endangered Chinese aircrafts when their jets, “interfered with Chinese military aircraft from close range and even launched jamming shells,” according to an article from CNN. The confrontation occurred over Japan’s Miyako Strait, near the Senkaku Islands.
Even more recently, a report from Al Jazeera News earlier this month covered the announcement by Japanese officials that they would be deploying the country’s largest warship on a three-month tour of the South China Sea. Though not directly related to the island dispute in the eastern region, China currently lays claim to almost all the territory in the South China Sea. Therefore, Japan’s tour has the potential to be interpreted as an act of aggression or flexing of power.
The Senkaku Islands have a relatively complicated history of ownership and authority. Below is a timeline to simplify its many transitions:
The argument here centers around determining what constitutes a legal claim to ownership of the islands — a task made more contentious by the fact that some of these claims trace their origins back to the 14th century.
According to an article from the Diplomat, China argues that Japan effectively stole the islands from the authority of the Qing Dynasty following the end of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895. However, there is little evidence to its claims that the islands were ever previously under China’s rule, as officials have asserted. In addition, historical record shows that Japan actually claimed the islands prior to the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the afore mentioned conflict.
Japan, on the other hand, asserts that it legally obtained ownership of the territory as part of “acquisition through occupation,” and operated within the guidelines of international law which required a thorough survey of the land before it can be declared “terra nullius,” or nobody’s land.
Taiwan also asserts claims of authority over the islands, though its claims are not generally acknowledged to be as relevant as those of its neighboring Asian counterparts. The Senkaku Islands are geographically closest to Taiwan, laying approximately 105 miles from its coast. This is followed by China, at 205 miles away from the islands, then Japan at 254 miles, according to a report from the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. So, to what extent does proximity affect sovereignty? According to Tokyo Foundation President Akiyama Mashiro, the answer is very little:
“For questions of territorial sovereignty, the process by which that territory has come into a state’s possession is the key — be it by occupying terra nullius (land belonging to nobody), showing effective control over the territory, displaying the intention to possess the territory, or some other means recognized in international law — and the geographic status of that territory serves only to define its precise location,” he said in his report “Geopolitical Considerations of the Senkaku Islands.”
What might the future hold for the conflicts surrounding the Senkaku Islands? Despite their complicated history, Northeastern University political science professor Julie Garey, PhD., does not see much cause for alarm. “So long as both [Japan and China] have access to the waterways, there is potential for it to not matter as much,” she said. According to Garey, the conflict surrounding the Senkaku Islands comes up in her teaching and research when thinking about international alliances. “Its relevance fluctuates, but when there’s some kind of triggering event, it comes back to light,” she said.
Garey explained that, while China previously had shown limited interest in the islands previously, discoveries of oil reserves and other valuable resources on the islands spurred aggressive Chinese pushback. However, Garey believes there is also a flexing of power that motivates China to fight for the area. “You also have to look at the regional hegemony, and China’s desire to control that sphere and keep the U.S. out,” she said. This, according to Garey, is where U.S. interests start to come into play, “There’s a strategic interest for the U.S. Those waterways [surrounding the islands] are tremendously powerful economically.”
According to Garey, tensions may begin to dissolve as fuel sources evolve. “It would certainly help if we lessened the value of these resources as we made a move towards clean energy and alternatives to oil and coal,” she said.
Despite more recent media coverage surrounding the dispute, Garey believes much of the tension over ownership of the islands comes predominantly from Chinese and Japanese officials, rather than from the people. “We have [at Northeastern] a contingency of Japanese students coming in,” said Garey. “I’ll often ask a student what they think of China, and I’ll get responses like ‘Well, we like Chinese food.’ So everyday citizens don’t seem to really care.”
The Reference Shelf
The Guardian’s overview of recent conflicts and acts of aggression between Japan and China in the East China Sea.
An interview with Stanford graduate student Xiang Zhai, who studied the diaries of 20th century Chinese ruler Chiang Kai-shek and their relation to the Senkaku Islands dispute.
A December 2016 article from Foreign Policy Magazine’s about Japan’s response to China’s increased use of naval ships patrolling through Japanese waters in December 2016.
CNN coverage of a January 2017 incident in which Chinese ships sailed into Japanese waters within miles of the Senkaku Island shores.
An article from BBC News reporting on what U.S.–Japanese relations may look like under Trump.