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Why China, Japan are squaring off in Senkaku/ Diaoyu Island dispute

A Japanese Coast Guard vessel patrolling off the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea
A Japanese Coast Guard vessel patrolling off the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea
Al-Jazeera English, CC BY-SA 2.0

Earlier today, Japan scrambled eight F-15 fighter jets in response to a Chinese incursion into airspace above the disputed Senkaku Islands. This represents a major escalation of the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Island dispute between the two nations according to a report from The Japan Daily Press. If you pay attention to international news you may have heard about the dispute between China and Japan over a small group of relatively unnoteworthy Pacific Islands called the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by China. What’s behind the dispute, and what is the basis for each nation claiming the islands?

Why do Japan and China want the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands?

According to Seokwoo Lee’s “Territorial Disputes among Japan, China and Taiwan Concerning the Senkaku Islands,” it was evidence of the existence of oil deposits under the East China Sea where the islands lie that prompted China and Taiwan’s interest in the islands. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) says estimates range from 60-170 billion barrels of “undiscovered” oil by the Chinese to 60-100 million barrels of proven/ probable reserves by the EIA. Additionally, there are believed to be trillions of cubic feet of natural gas reserves under the East China Sea.

While not all the oil and gas reserves of the East China Sea lie under the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands, ownership of the islands and their surrounding territorial waters lie in a prime location for exploiting the energy resources of the East China Sea.

What is China’s Claim to the Diaoyu Islands?

China Daily quotes Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei as saying that the Diaoyu Islands have been an inherent part of China since ancient times, while the EIA says Chinese claims are based on centuries old use of the islands as navigational aids and their appearance in Chinese accounts and charts of the region from the 15th century. Furthermore, The CS Monitor reports that when, after WWII, Japan was forced to restore to China lands that it had seized in the 1895 Sino-Japan War (which included Taiwan), the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands were a part of that restoration.

What is Japan’s Claim to the Senkaku Islands?

Japan, for its part, agrees that it took control of the disputed islands in 1895, but did so upon finding them empty and without ownership or governance from any nation prior to that date. In the aftermath of WWII, the United States administered the Islands under the auspices of the United Nations. They were specifically called out in the Okinawa Reversion Treaty as part of the lands being repatriated to Japan by the United States in the very early 1970s. Japan also notes that Despite the presence of 99 Japanese homes and a fish processing factory on the main island in the years following Japan’s original claiming of the island, China never disputed Japanese sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands until a U.N. report in 1970 suggested there might be substantial oil and gas reserves in the area.

What is the United States’ position on the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Island dispute?

In a bill passed by the Senate amending the National Defense Authorization Act, the United States does not take any position on the ultimate ownership of the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands, but since they are under the administration of Japan at present, they fall under the treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States. That means the United States would militarily defend the islands alongside Japan, if they were attacked or seized by any third party including China. China, of course, vigorously objects to the United States taking such a position.

What is the current status of the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Island dispute?

Several of the islands had fallen under private ownership, but were recently purchased by Japan from those owners to make it abundantly clear that Japan holds sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands. Japan’s Coast Guard actively patrols and defends a 27 mile territorial limit around the islands from incursions such by the Chinese to varying effect as reported by TASS on December 7.

Even more recently, Japanese fighter jets responded to what they termed an airspace violation over the Senkaku Islands by a “non-military” Chinese aircraft. Internationally recognized treaties allow ships to sail through the territorial waters of other nations on “normal passages,” but sovereign airspace may not be traversed without express permission of the governing party. Therefore, under international convention the use of force to repel aircraft such as the Chinese government plane that overflew the Senkaku Islands today would be permissible.

Will the Senkaku Island dispute lead to active military conflict?

As China seeks to slowly exert its rights to the Diaoyu Islands, it seems, it is playing a game of brinkmanship, daring Japan to take action against them. Certainly, the world has a clear track record of nations going to war over oil. Will the East China Sea turn into another such flashpoint? As Japan's Shinzo Abe calls for a more militaristic approach to the Senkaku Island dispute and sits on the verge of retaking political leadership in Japan according a Reuters report, who can say if China’s continuing escalation will lead to an unforgiveable incident by either party.


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