Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands Dispute Between China and Japan
Introduction and History of the Islands
The Senkaku Islands (also known as Pinnacle Islands and Diaoyu Islands) are composed of eight volcanic islands that are not inhabited and that have a relatively small land area of 6.2 square kilometers. The Japanese government claims the islands for Japan, while China also claims ownership of the islands. According to Seokwoo Lee, writing in the International Boundaries Research Unit (IBRU) publication, Territorial Disputes among Japan, China and Taiwan Concerning the Senkaku Islands (Boundary & Territory Briefing Vol. 3 No. 7), the islands are in the East China Sea about 200 kilometers northeast of Taiwan and 300 kilometers west of Okinawa (Lee, 2000, p. 2).
Lee writes that during the 16th century travel accounts of Ming Dynasty envoys mentioned three of the islands (their Chinese names were Tiaoyutai, Huangweiyu, and Chihweiyu), which they visited on their way to the Ryukyu Islands. The Senkaku Islands were considered at that time to be the "…boundary separating Taiwan from the Ryukyu Islands" (Okinawa) (Lee, p. 2). After the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 China agreed to "cede" Taiwan to Japan; the deal was made under the "Shimonoseki Treaty" (May, 1895).
Language under that treaty clearly indicated that the Senkaku Islands belonged to Japan: "China cedes to Japan in perpetuity and full sovereignty the following territories… (b) The island of Formosa together with all islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Formosa…"
However, in 1945 -- at the end of World War II -- Taiwan was "returned to China" due to the signing of the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Proclamation. In the Cairo Declaration Japan accepted that "…all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China" (Lee, 4). When Japan surrendered to the United States -- following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- Japan basically had to turn over the administration of much of its territory ("Nansei Shoto") to the "U.S. Civil Administration." That territory included Okinawa and "…those islands, islets, atolls and reefs as well as their territorial waters' within specific geographic coordinates that included the Senkaku Islands" (Lee, 5).
Meanwhile, the discovery of "…the possible existence of large hydrocarbon deposit[s] in the waters off the Senkaku Islands… [that] might contain substantial resources of petroleum, perhaps comparable to the Persian Gulf area" (Lee, 6). Rongxing Guo explains that the discovery of potentially enormous fossil fuel resources near the islands is important to both China and to Japan because "The two nations are among the world's biggest energy importers" as they both hope to continue stoking the fires of their enormous economic engines (Guo, 2006, p. 96). In 1999, when Japanese scientists surveyed the "disputed fields" offshore from the Senkaku Islands, they reported that there might be "200 billion" cubic meters of natural gas under the sea in that region (Guo, 96).
The Dispute Referenced in The Pacific Review
Professor Min Gyo Koo teaches in the Department of Public Administration at Yonsei University in Korea. He specializes in researching territorial disputes and the "political economy of the Asia Pacific"; he reports that Japan and Taiwan and South Korea formed the "United Oceanic Development Company" and the issue of sovereignty issue was stashed aside for a time (Koo, 2009, p. 213). However, China soon asserted that "…foreign exploitation of the area would not be tolerated" (Koo, 213). And when the United States completed its responsibilities under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement with Japan, and basically turned Okinawa (and the Senkaku Islands) back over to Japan (which the U.S. had controlled since the signing of the surrender by Japan in 1945), that "…increased the tension even further," Koo explains (213).
Tokyo was sensitive to the growing tensions and in 1971 the Japanese decided to postpone going in for oil until a later time. Initially Washington supported the Japanese claim for ownership of the Senkaku Islands, however, upon reflection, the U.S. has taken "…a neutral stance over the dispute" which it continues to take because it believes that "…any conflicting claims are a matter for resolution by the parties concerned" (Koo, 216).
But by 1976 the issue was on the table again when Mao died and Deng Xiaoping took over the reins of socialist China. "His immediate reaction was to escalate the island issue," Koo goes on. In fact, on April 12, 1978, "…more than 100 fishing trawlers bedecked with Chinese national flags reached the area and more than thirty of them entered the islands' 12 nautical mile territorial sea" (Koo, 217). Tensions ran high because of that incident.
Again in 1990 tensions were again raised when right wing groups in Japan "sought official lighthouse status for a beacon" that had been built on one of the island in 1978. The Japanese government apparently accepted the application by the right wing group, and hence the lighthouse was upgraded to meet the technical standards of the Japanese Maritime Safety Agency (JMSA) (Koo, 219). The capital of Taiwan (Taipei) protested immediately, saying it would not "…tolerate Japanese invasion of Chinese territory"; and indeed on October 21, 1990, a group of activists from Taiwan tried to land on the islands to "…place an Olympic torch as a symbol of Taiwanese sovereignty against the Japanese lighthouse (Koo, 219).
Later in October 1990, China got into the dispute again, demanding that the Japanese government "…restrict the ultra-nationalist activities of its citizens" albeit China did not take any action against Japan as a protest. Koo believes that China had decided not to make a big issue out of the lighthouse situation, possibly because of its "…low international status after the Tiananmen Incident of June 1989 and its reluctance to further antagonize Japan" (219). Things stayed calm between the two nations until 1996 when "…another lighthouse was built on one of the islands" and moreover, a series of "…abrasive behaviours in the East China Sea" stirred emotions even further.
In fact a Taiwanese fishing boat had been "detained" near the Islands that caused strained relations. And more tension was apparent in 1997 when a pro-Chinese activist, David Chan, tried to land his boat on the disputed islands; Chan jumped into the water when the Japanese groups that had put up the lighthouses tried to block him from landing on one of the islands. Chan drowned, and that caused "…large-scale anti-Japanese protests and boycotts in Hong Kong, Taiwan and North America," and the anger on both sides rose to levels that frightened those who were hoping for peace between the two (223).
Koo (224) continues his scholarly article by pointing out that hostility between the two Asian nations was brought down to a more peaceful level in 1997 when Japanese Prim Minister Hashimoto visited Beijing in September, and in November the Chinese reciprocated when Premier Li Peng visited Tokyo. Not only did these visits seem to cool tempers on both sides, the meetings resulted in a "new fishery agreement" between the two (Koo, 224).
Toward the conclusion of his peer-reviewed article, Koo admits that as to how the Chinese and Japanese have managed to keep this dispute, there are no "conventional explanations" to explain it. The two countries have managed to avoid pushing for "…a more definitive political showdown with respect to the island dispute," and there is one possible reason why they have kept the disagreement from causing a major flare-up in their relations (or even a military incident, which at times has seemed likely) (Koo, 228).
The reason Koo gives is that both parties are very interested in "…maintaining the lucrative trade and investment relations that both countries have enjoyed since 1972" (228). Notwithstanding the tensions and accusations on both sides, and notwithstanding the fact that the issue of who has territorial rights to the Senkaku Islands has not been resolved, both sides "…have found it a convenient strategy to shelve final resolution attempts" instead of taking the risk of destroying the strategic and economic relationships Japan and China have enjoyed in recent years (Koo, 228).
The Senkaku Islands Dispute from the Chinese Perspective
From the perspective of China, the islands have been owned by China dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and moreover, they were reportedly used as "…navigational aids and an operational base" for Chinese fishermen (Pan, 2007, p. 77). China says that it incorporated the islands into its "…maritime defenses in 1556," Pan explains; also, in 1893, just a couple years before Japan claims that it held title to the islands, Tsu His of Qing issues "an imperial edict, by which she awarded the Diaoyu Islands to a Chinese alchemist" who had reportedly harvested medical herbs on those islands (77).
Another reason why China clings to the notion that it, not Japan, owns the islands is a study by a Japanese professor at Kyoto University, Kiyoshi Inoue, who studied the issues closely and published a claim that the islands do indeed belong to China. Pan quotes the…