The Diaoyutai-senkaku Islands Dispute Reawakened

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 3

On January 15, 2004 patrol boats from the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces (JMSDF) allegedly attacked two Chinese fishing vessels in waters near the disputed Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, according to a report in the People’s Daily (China). The Japanese vessels were said to have fired water cannon on the Chinese vessels and to have injured one Chinese citizen. A Japanese aircraft was also said to have been involved and to have threatened the Chinese vessels. The Chinese vessels approached to within ten miles of one of the islands before turning back. The People’s Daily report concluded with the following statement: “The Diaoyu Islands have been a part of Chinese territory since ancient times and an important fishing area…[for China].” There appear to have been no reports issued in the Japanese press on the incident.

The island group in question – Diaoyutai in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese – is composed of eight small, uninhabited islands, sitting roughly 100 miles northeast of Taiwan and 250 miles west of Okinawa. The largest of these islands is but two square miles in area. As the Chinese article pointed out, however, the waters in this area are rich fishing grounds and the seabed below the waves could potentially contain valuable minerals and/or oil deposits. Incidents in the waters around these islands have increased in number since 1996. Most of the incidents involve Japanese patrol boats chasing Chinese activists or fishing craft from the waters, which Japan considers its own territorial waters.

A Complicated Relationship

This incident is but the latest in a series of incidents and milestones that reflect the contradictory and tense relationship between Beijing and Tokyo of recent years. The territorial dispute is but one small aspect of the bilateral relationship. Yet given recent events in Taiwan, it could prove to be a serious point of contention between China and Japan in coming months. Sino-Japanese political relations, which just this past summer celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Japan-China Friendship Treaty and the establishment of diplomatic relations, remain tense in light of unresolved historical issues, and the growing enmity of the populaces of both nations toward one another.

Sino-Japanese economic relations have, ironically, increased to an unprecedented level, highlighted by the recent announcement that in 2003 Japan exported more goods to China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan than to the United States for the first time ever. Japanese investment in China continues to soar. According to conservative estimates, since diplomatic relations were restored in 1978 the Japanese government and Japanese firms have poured more than $50 billion worth of investment and development assistance into mainland China. In 2003 bilateral trade between China and Japan reached an all-time high of $120 billion. Nevertheless, the increasingly competitive drive between China and Japan – especially in Russia – for resources (as pointed out in the Jamestown China Brief by John C. K. Daly recently) threatens to poison even the healthy economic relationship. This is where the territorial dispute over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands comes into play. As veteran Japanese columnist Yoichi Funabashi recently pointed out in a series of articles in the Asahi Shimbun, the inclusion of uninhabited islets can mean the expansion of a nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and can bring extra resources – marine, mineral or petroleum – into a nation’s coffers. In the case of the Diaoyutai/Senakaku Islands, we are talking about an additional 40,000 square kilometers of EEZ. There has been speculation for decades that the waters around the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islets are rich in oil and gas deposits. Indeed, a U.N. Economic Commission study conducted in 1968 first suggested this. Complicating the issue even more is the role played by Taiwan, which also claims the islands and backs Chinese demands that Japan cease from claiming and patrolling these islands.

Historical Roots of the Islands Dispute

The Diaoyutai/Senkaku dispute only really came to the forefront of East Asian diplomacy, interestingly, at the end of the Cold War. Japan’s annexation of the Ryukyu (including Okinawa) Archipelago (1872) and Taiwan (1895) at the end of the 19th century mark the opening dates of this dispute. Japan formally annexed the disputed islands in question in 1895 at the end of the Sino-Japanese War. Japan’s transgressions elsewhere in China during the first forty-five years of the 20th century and America’s subsequent occupation of the Ryukyu Archipelago until 1972 put this issue in a relatively minor category of unresolved issues between China and Japan for three quarters of a century. The exigencies of the raised Soviet threat to both China and Japan in the 1970s and 1980s forced this issue to the backburner even longer. Mao Zedong stated that this was an issue that was of little importance and could be put off for “later generations.” In fact, Japan has retained de facto control over these islets during this entire period of more than a century.

The issue gained greater attention again in the 1990s once the Soviet Union collapsed and as China’s stature in Asia rose to match its size and geographical location. In 1996, the year of the Taiwan Strait crisis (unlikely a coincidence – something to think about in any future Taiwan crisis), the Japanese Diet publicly claimed the “Senkaku” Islands for Japan. The Chinese government issued a warning soon thereafter to the Japanese government about the dangers of “raising the rhetoric.” Soon thereafter China dispatched an oil exploration vessel to the adjacent waters. Chinese (PLAAF) fighters also began a pattern of infringing in Japan’s airspace near the islands, causing Okinawa-based Japan Air Self Defense Force fighters to scramble in response on numerous occasions. A right-wing group in Japan responded to the war of rhetoric by building a small lighthouse on one of the islands in late 1996.

The territorial dispute threatened to involve the United States in the fall of 1996 when a U.S. State Department spokesman refused to say outright whether the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty covered these disputed islands. In other words, the State Department was unsure whether U.S. military forces stationed in Japan would be responsible for protecting the islands in the event of a Chinese incursion. Japanese diplomats were taken aback and scrambled through back channels to find out exactly where the United States stood on this issue. When clarification on this issue was sought at higher levels of the State Department, no answer was available. The Pentagon, backed by a study conducted by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, finally stepped in and gave a clear affirmative answer to Japan’s question in December 1996. Pentagon officials pointed out that the islands were included in the terms of the U.S.-Japan Okinawa Reversion Treaty of 1971. But this left many leaders in Japan somewhat shaken and gave further impetus to the review of U.S.-Japan defense cooperation guidelines at the time.

The territorial dispute has cropped up from time to time again in the last several years. It usually makes the headlines when activists from either China or Japan (or Taiwan) visit the islands, or come close to the shores as happened in mid-January this year. These incidents occasionally involve more substantial participants, such as in November of the past year when a Japanese maritime Self-Defense Force P-3C spotted a Chinese Ming-class attack submarine in waters close to the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands.

These two most recent incidents highlight the increasing tendency for East Asia’s various navies to zealously protect their territorial waters. The waters around the Korean Peninsula, for example, have seen a number of marine confrontations over the past several years. So have the waters of the South China Sea (particularly around the disputed Spratly Islands), as have the waters of the Sea of Okhotsk – where Japanese, North Korean, South Korean, and Russian fishermen chase the same schools of fish in contested waters.

Ties That Do Not Bind

The issues of World War II and historical memory – everything from shrines to chemical weapons to prostitutes – engender widespread anti-Japanese feelings among the public in China. Japanese cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi, make annual pilgrimages to the Yasukuni Shrine, a sore topic for many Chinese given the fact that the names of several war criminals are enshrined there. Continuing gaffes, such as the statement by influential LDP Diet member Eto Takami in July last year that the Nanjing incident was a “complete fabrication,” only add to the enmity in China. So too did the incident in this past fall when it was learned that 300 Chinese prostitutes had been used to service a group of visiting 400 Japanese businessmen in the city of Zhuhai, near Guandong. The obvious comparison to “comfort women” was made in reference to this incident in the Chinese press, and especially on internet chat groups in China. The discovery of chemical munitions left behind at Qiqichar in Northeastern China by the Imperial Japanese Army inflamed the situation even more when one of the Chinese workers who made the discovery died of exposure two weeks later.

Anti-Chinese sentiment has been growing in Japan of late, as well. The perception in Japan now is that China trades unfairly and has failed to be transparent about its defense budget. In 2003 the Japanese government cut back on yen loans to China by 10 percent from the previous year. Japan has also sat up and taken notice of China’s successful manned space launch, all the more worrisome to the Japanese given the depleted state of Japan’s space program.

The Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands dispute is still a relatively minor affair for both China and Japan. Neither nation wishes to damage the growing economic relationship between the two. Nevertheless, as incidents around the islands and the potential for confrontation increase in number, they will only add to the mutual enmity that is slowly building in both societies. These close encounters could also escalate to crises absorbing the energies of both governments, such as the U.S.-China P-3 incident off of Hainan Island in 2001. Chinese-Japanese security relations have been improving of late, but they are still tenuous. Security relations usually trump economic relations, and so there is no guarantee that the vibrant Sino-Japanese economic relationship can be the glue that holds the two nations together.

Mr. Joseph Ferguson is the director of Northeast Asia Studies at The National Bureau of Asian Research in Seattle, Washington.