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How Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are Significant for China and Japan - Explaining Dispute

The Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands are a small group of uninhabited islands. These Islands are located in the East China Sea. The chain of the Island consists of five islets and three tiny rocky islets. China, Japan, and Taiwan have claims over the sovereignty of these Islands and these claims have existed for centuries. The Sino-Japanese Dispute over Senkaku and Diaoyu Islands is considered a major problem and threat for both countries. Both Japan and China have arguments to prove their claims over these Islands.

These Islands have significance due to their strategic location and are considered important in terms of economy and security. There Islands are located between the Japanese Ryukyu Islands and the island of Taiwan. These Islands are located around 200 nautical miles southwest of Okinawa, around 120 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan, and 230 nautical miles east of China's mainland. So, these locations compel China and Japan to strengthen their defense system. Due to its significance for both China and Japan, the other international actors are also concerned about these Islands, especially the U.S., due to their strategic and economic importance.

Many reports tell us that the struggle of Japan and China for these Islands became significant when natural resources were discovered in these Islands. These Islands are good for rich fishing grounds, and it is also said that natural gas and oil are present in these Islands. Both resources are very significant to boost the economy of both countries.

Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are significant for both Japan and China, and these countries claim sovereignty over these Islands. These Islands are materially very significant and it is considered a strategic asset for both countries. China and Japan have come to the table to negotiate and resolve the issue, but the military escalation in the East China Sea always worsened this dispute and it increased the intensity of hostile relations between both countries.

Historical Background

There is a long history of dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Both Japan and China have historical claims on sovereignty and ownership of these Islands. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Beijing claimed the islands and considered them part of its maritime territory. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China also claimed that these Islands were placed under the jurisdiction of Taiwan by the Qing Dynasty, however, the island is used by the Chinese fisherman for temporary sanctuary. China has not established any permanent military or civilian settlements on these Islands.

In January 1895, Japan claimed and maintained that there is no territorial dispute to these Islands and an ordinance was approved by Japanese Emperor Meiji to annex these Islands. Tokyo contends that the islands were uninhabited and there was no evidence of China’s ever control over these Islands. Taiwan and China rejected this claim. A Sino-Japanese war took place in 1894-95 in which the Chinese were defeated by the Japanese. The war ended with the 1895 Shimonoseki Treaty. In this treaty, Taiwan and some related islands were ceded to Japan but the treaty never mentioned these particular islands.

Japan maintained its authority over these Islands till World War II when the U.S. took administrative control over them. In 1952, a San Francesco peace treaty was signed between Japan and the U.S., and the U.S. started to administer Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in 1953. The U.S. got the power to the administration of Nansei Shoto south of 29north latitude under Article 3 of the treaty, which included the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Nansei Shoto and the other Ryukyu Islands were administrated by the US till 1971. Under the Okinawa Reversion Treaty, which was signed on June 17, 1971, the Islands were returned to Japan and the treaty became operative on May 15, 1972. This agreement was reached due to a report published in 1968 by the United Nations Committee for the Coordination of Joint Prospecting for Mineral Resources in Asian Offshore. In this report, the significance of the East China Sea is explained and they mentioned the possibility of energy resources under the East China Sea, Due to this China, Japan, and Taiwan showed their interest in these Islands.

In 1978, Both Japan and China negotiated a formal treaty but in the process of negotiations, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands became a disturbing factor, because both countries do not want to step back to their earlier claims over these Islands. Still, both governments attempted to negotiate, and in October 1978, a treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed between China and Japan. The dispute got more attention when the government of Japan decided to allow the Nihon Seinensha (a group of people having ultra-nationalistic views) to renovate a lighthouse that they had founded earlier in 1978. Due to this development, anti-Japanese demonstrations were held in Hongkong and Taiwan and the flags of the Japanese were burnt by the demonstrators. China responded that the Islands were the territory of China and that Japan should not have to interfere.

China passed the Law on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone in 1992 and declared its claim specifying the “Diaoyu Islands” as China’s territory after the Foreign Ministry of Japan also protested over this action. According to the Japanese, the Senkaku Islands are part of Japan’s territory historically and in the view of international law. Japan proclaimed an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in June 1996.

Furthermore, The Nihon Seinensha landed on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island for the third time and constructed a new lighthouse on the northern side of the islets. They requested for the Japanese government to recognize it, which led to protests erupting in Hongkong and Taiwan. It was reported that many clashes and confrontations occurred between Chinese protestors and Japanese right-wing groups regarding the sovereignty over these Islands.

Since 1999, the government of China shifted its verbal claims to physical presence in the Islands which are disputed. They have sent naval vessels and scientific research vessels to the Islands. On February 9, 2005, the lighthouse built by the Japanese right-wing activist on Senkaku island in 1988 was placed under state control and protection. This move was strongly opposed by the Chinese government and considered a violation of Chinese territorial sovereignty. China also opposed Japan’s illegal oil exploration in the East China sea and they intended to engage in bilateral discussions on the conflicting claims on oil exploration in the East China Sea.

In 2008, both Japan and China made agreements to seek joint exploration of resources around
the median site. They have made a clear distinction between the disputed territory on Island and the rights to develop the undersea resources. This move made some understanding for cooperation on oil and gas resources. A hindrance came to the implementation of the agreement into a binding treaty as a result. After that, no agreements were made for the production of resources.

In 2012, a new development occurred when Japan purchased three disputed Islands from a private owner, increasing the tensions raised between Japan and China. These islands are economically rich because it contains oil and natural gas reserves. In 2014, Obama stated that the U.S. – Japan Security Treaty covered the disputed Island but the U.S. does not take a formal position on their ultimate sovereignty. Any military adventurism by China or Japan can escalate armed hostility between China and the United States.

There were also some discussions between China and Japan for crisis management, but the talks stalled due to China's establishment of an air defense identification zone. After that, China and Japan signed a four-point consensus document in which they mentioned their concerns about the disputed islands. In early 2015, bilateral discussions were resumed in which they set a goal to implement the maritime and aerial communication mechanism. In 2018, the mechanism was launched after nine rounds of high-level talks.

The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu escalated due to the particular claims of both states. It becomes complicated due to the demarcation issue on the East China Sea, and both countries faced hostility over this dispute.

Material Value Of Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

Many experts have explained the territorial disputes in terms of tangible benefits which include natural resources, strategic advantage, extra land to settle, a base for tax, and control of trade routes. Many arguments explain the strategic and economic value of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Strategic Value

Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are strategically very important. For the Chinese, possessing these Islands would aid the Chinese military in breaking through the first island chain separating continental China from the Pacific Ocean.

 If the Japanese would possess these Islands, it will prevent Japan from the Chinese military breakthrough. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are located inside the Island chain that stretches from the Korean peninsula southward across the Japanese Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, and beyond to the Philippines. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are close to these chains of Islands and it's only 60 miles (100 km) away from the chain.

If China possesses Senkaku/Island, it still requires military vessels to pass through several bottlenecks like the Miyako Strait, which is present between the Miyako and Okinawa Islands of Japan. This chain of the island is useful for the Japanese military to keep a check on China. Japan can deploy mobile and surface-to-ship missiles that can cover the strait’s entrance. Japan can also deploy submarines and guided-missile patrol boats to block critical passages. Analysts say that Japan does not need to control Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands because it can keep checking the passageways through the strait’s entrance but for China, if they break through the chain, their military can capture the Islands like Miyako and Ishigaki.

Another strategic importance of the islands is the placement of strategically useful assets like missiles or radar installation, and these islands provide the platform for these assets. These assets will be closer to either the Chinese continental coastline or island chain and also near sea lines of communication. So, these islands give a marginal advantage to the states and if anything will be placed on the island, it would be extremely vulnerable. It is also reported that there are scant spaces on the island to develop redundancies or to hide assets. The assets on the Island will provide identifiable targets and the islands are relatively isolated.

According to the Japanese defense, it is reported that the islands have less strategic value. For them, the radar placed at Senkaku, and the radar placed 0n the nearby ship would give the same result. Its value is not zero but quite low. According to one former Japanese vice admiral, they are “just junk rocks, no strategic value.”

For China, they have already militarized features in the South China Sea. If they want to militarize the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island, first they have to expel Japan from it. Then, there would be a chance of wider confrontation with the United States. So, acquiring such islands also needs a bigger cost and there is a possibility of confrontation. It is a fact that Japan has already placed some strategic assets on the nearby island south of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. It is difficult to argue that either side would justify war for marginal strategic benefit.

Economic Value

Like the strategic values, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands also have economic value. The United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea gives a sovereign right of 200-nautical-mile exclusive
economic zone. There are some overlapping claims, and a
study has been conducted in which 19,800 square nautical miles of exclusive economic zone entitlements with significant potential are at stake. These entitlements are considered valuable by a report published by U.N. Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East in 1969. The report explained that there is a possibility of the presence of the most prolific oil reserves in the world in these Islands but the report hasn’t confirmed the presence of actual reserves.

After this report, Japan and Taiwan started negotiations which were objected to by China. As a result, no drilling has been done in this area. Both Chinese and Japanese officials estimated the possibility of oil reserves, but it remains uncertain what lies in the nearby seabed.

Another economic value of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is the fishing resources present around the islands. In 1997, an agreement was signed between Japan and China in which both sides decided not to impose their laws on the “nationals and fishing vessels” on the other in the waters 12 nautical miles beyond the islands. The government of Japan claimed that the 1997 agreement does not apply to the territorial water and Japanese Coast Guards are not letting the Chinese approach this. The stocks of fish in these waters have declined due to over-fishing and thus due to increasing fuel costs and a decline in the number of fish, the Japanese fishers avoid traveling.

Seabed mining is also considered a potential source and signifies these islands' economic value. Seabed mining includes polymetallic sulfides or polymetallic manganese nodules. The concentrated resources are present in the depths of the Okinawa Trough. There are also questions about the sovereignty of these Islands and the exclusive economic zone. There are hurdles in the entitlement of exclusive economic zones like lack of economic activity and populations and the size of Islands.

Is There Any Resolution in View?

We have seen that due to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute, both states faced strained diplomatic relations. In November 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to make a “new start” on bilateral ties. Li Keqiang became the first Chinese premier to visit Japan in May 2018. When he visited Japan, both countries decided to establish security hostile to avoid maritime confrontations in the future. Furthermore, a Japanese leader and the first official named Abe visited Beijing in October 2018 despite hostile relations.

Many meetings were held and negotiations occurred, but both haven’t reached any fruitful resolution. When the US-Japan treaty was signed, the situation became more complicated. The United States and Japan are doing military exercises in the surrounding water and preparing to give a response to future possible Chinese invasions of the disputed islands.


Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are significant for both Japan and China, and these countries claim sovereignty over these Islands. These Islands are materially very significant and it is considered a strategic asset for both countries. China and Japan have come to the table to negotiate and resolve the issue, but the military escalation in the East China Sea always worsened this dispute and it increased the intensity of hostile relations between both countries.

The United States is also concerned about these Islands and they have signed many treaties with Japan, especially the security agreement. Japan is an ally of the United States and the United States always supported Japan in the military escalation between China and Japan.

The involvement of the third actor also pushes other actors like Russia and European countries to think about this dispute. As we know that China is expanding its influence in the region economically, and they need to secure its trade routes and make good relations with Japan. Both China and Japan need to make diplomatic efforts to solve this dispute through negotiations otherwise in the future there is a possibility of war between China and Japan, which will also affect the neighboring countries and international peace.











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