That Other China Sea Islands Dispute

International Relations, Politics, Regional History

The long-running South China Sea island dispute involving several Southeast Asian states❈ has demanded much of the world news attention recently. In July the International Court of The Hague rejected the territorial claims of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC), a judicial decision which the PRC, predictably, refused to recognise. Not far from the location of this seemingly intractable international dispute is another long-running dispute with marked similarities in the East China Sea, involving two of the South China Sea players, China and Taiwan (ROC), along with Japan.

Proximity to disputing parties
Proximity to disputing parties
This dispute is over a small, remote group of uninhibited islands (comprising five islets and three rocks), known variously as the Senkaku Islands回 (Japan), Diàoyú Islands (PRC) or the Pinnacle Islands (ROC). After the Empire of Japan’s defeat in WWII the Senkakus were administered by the US until 1972 as part of the Ryukyus Islands. In that year the Senkaku Islands were returned to Japan under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement.

From the early 1970s interest in the Senkakus by outside parties started to be shown. According to Japan, it surveyed the Islands in 1885 and found them uninhibited, and so incorporated them into Japan under the doctrine of terra nullius[1]. Japan affirms this to be the legal title for it’s “valid control” (to use the government’s term) of the Senkaku Islands. Despite this both the PRC and the ROC lodged claims to the islands in 1971. Their interest in such a collection of sparse and barren rocks seems to be linked to the ECAFE (UN Economic Commission for Asia and Far East) report in 1968 which identified the possibility of oil reserves in the area (although in the longer term ROC’s interest in the Pinnacle Islands (Senkakus) seems primarily to do with the Sea’s rich fishing harvest).

China’s (and Taiwan’s) claims for territorial sovereignty rest on a historical argument. PRC views the islands as part of its traditional fishing grounds, administered through the historic Chinese province of Taiwan. Beijing additionally has argued that the Senkaku/Diàoyú Islands were integral to China’s coastal defences against Japanese pirates during the Ming Dynasty (14th-17th centuries). China’s claim also contends that Japan ‘stole’ its sovereignty over the Islands by annexing them in the aftermath of the (First) Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95[2].

Japan, for its part, expressed cynicism over the belatedness of Chinese (and Taiwanese) claims, attributing it to the attraction of the islands as a potential source of oil for China. Access through the East China Sea both to key shipping lanes and to its rich fishing grounds was also noted[3]. These by-products of course were equally-attractive motives to Japan for holding on to the Senkakus.

Successive Japanese governments have rebuffed the Chinese contention that the islands should have been handed over to it after WWII in accordance with the 1943 Cairo Agreement and the 1945 Potsdam Agreement. These agreements decreed that Japan would forfeit territories, eg, Formosa (Taiwan) and Pescadores Islands (Penghu), acquired by Japanese imperial aggression, but Japan has argued that the Senkaku Islands were not mentioned in these documents, not part of Formosa and therefore were not intended to be included under its terms[4].

imageWith no ground being given by either country, the Senkakus conflict simmered on the back-burner for several decades, however in the 2010s the dispute has heated up again. China in particularly has taken a more proactive and aggressive stance. It has directed an increasing number of it’s vessels – both commercial and naval – into the territorial zone claimed by Japan (Taiwan also has launched protest vessels against the Japanese). In 2010 a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese vessels off the islands – resulting in a serious diplomatic issue and a protracted stand-off between Beijing and Tokyo. In 2013 China provocatively declared an Aerial Defence Identification Zone in the vicinity of the islands (ADIZ)[5].

Japan has countered with some provocations of its own. The right-wing Toyko governor, Ishihara, moved to use public funds to purchase the Senkaku Islands from their private owner in 2012, prompting the Japanese government to step in and acquire (ie, effectively to nationalise) three of the islands as a damage control measure. An unmollified China reacted by sailing its government ships including coastguard vessels through Japanese-claimed territorial waters. In 2014 it was announced that students in Japanese classrooms would be taught that the Senkaku Islands are Japanese territories – further angering Beijing[6].

Amrita Jash has attributed China’s combativeness on the Senkaku issue to more than the pursuit of economic interests and maritime security, pinpointing the “emotional significance” to PRC of Diàoyú Tai. Jash argues that the depth of China’s nationalist passions over the islands has its genesis in memories of the humiliation and inferiority felt by the Chinese during the period of Japanese occupation (1930s-40s) which evinced a sort of “victim identity” for China. Such hyper-intense feelings fed by historical insecurity are seen by Jash as currently driving a ‘hawkish’ foreign policy against Japan[7].

The role of the United States in the dispute?
PRC’s perception is that the US sides with the Japanese position over the Senkakus/Diàoyús. The reality of this was made unequivocally clear to Beijing during Barack Obama’s 2014 trip to Japan when the President assured his Japanese hosts that the islands dispute fell “within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan security treaty” … (and that) “we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands”. China duly protested, labelling the US-Japan accord “a bilateral arrangement from the Cold War”[8].

Chinese escalation of the conflict and possible long-term outcomes?
In the event of PRC gaining control of the disputed territories a number of threats to each of the players could materialise:

⌲ to Taiwan the idea of Beijing controlling the islands so close to Taiwan (170km to the north) is a worrying geo-strategic prospect, ie, as a Chinese invasion route to recapture Taiwan which Beijing still denies legitimacy to and considers to be a rightful province of mainland China. More immediately important to Taiwan is the concern that Chinese control would deprive it of vital fishing grounds

⌲ to Japan the threat from commercial effects (loss of fishing waters, blocking of trade routes, exclusion from potential oil fields) is very significant, but probably even more concerning to it is the security implications (PRC using the strategically-positioned islands for a military build-up)◑

⌲ the US is not directly part of the disputants but Washington is cognisant of the inherent risk to it from China gaining a dominant hold over the East China Sea, eg, it could in a future, Pacific power play scenario block US fleet activities in the area[9]

8 tiny rocky islets in the middle of a political storm!
8 tiny rocky islets in the middle of a political storm!
With international concern over rising tensions in the East China Sea and the stalemate between China and Japan, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has been suggested as an approach to a solution. Japan, in possession of the disputed territory, would not need to take the initiative, whereas PRC (along with ROC) have the motivation to do so. But China’s recent refusal to accept the ICJ ruling over the South China Sea issue (and having as it appears the weaker case in the Senkaku/Diàoyú dispute), recourse to the ICJ would likely see PRC again reject it’s findings and we would be no closer to a resolution of the matter[10].


❈ China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – all with overlapping or related territorial claims in the sea involving the Paracels Islands, the Spratly Islands, the Pratas Islands and Scarborough Shoal, as well as various disputes over the maritime boundaries of each state
回 Uotsuri-shíma (coordinates: 25˚46’N 123˚31’E) at a mere 4.3 square metres in size is the largest of the islands
◑ a measure of how seriously Tokyo takes the threat from China on this and other contemporary conflicts between the two Asian powerhouses is the record defence budget approved by Prime Minister Abe’s government in late 2015 – US$41.4B
China’s lack of good evidence of historic occupation of the disputed island group seriously undermines its case vis-à-vis Japan

[1] from time to time since 1895 the islands have been populated by Japan and used to harvest albatross feathers and process dried bonito, Tadeshi Ikeda, ‘Getting Senkaku History Right’, The Diplomat, 26-Nov 2013,
2] A Jash, ‘Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute: identity versus territory’, (11-Jan 2016),; S Roy-Chaudhury, ‘The Senkaku Islands Dispute’, International Policy Digest, 1-Aug 2016,
[3] ‘How uninhibited islands soured China-Japan ties’, BBC News, 10-Nov 2014,
[4] ‘The Senkaku Islands’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan,
[5] BBC News, ibid.
[6] ibid.; Justin McCurry, ‘Japan: teachers to call Senkaku and Takeshima islands Japanese territory’, The Guardian, 29-Jan 2014
[7] Jash, op.cit.
[8] Ankit Panda, ‘Obama: Senkakus Covered Under US-Japan Security Treaty’, The Diplomat,, 24-Apr 2014,
[9] Roy-Chaudhury, op.cit.
[10] Ikeda, op.cit.