The History Behind China and Japan's Anger Over a Few Empty Islands

The disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are becoming an increasingly tense point in the long and complicated relationship between these two countries.

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Protesters hold Chinese national flags and a poster showing the disputed Islands at an anti-Japanese protest in Chengdu. (Reuters)

Tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have escalated to a new, troubling level. On September 11, Japan's cabinet secretary announced the government had purchased the islands from a Japanese citizen. Since then, China has sent nearly twenty marine surveillance ships to patrol through the islands, prompting a full alert by Japan's Coast Guard. In addition, two Japanese activists landed on the Senkaku Islands on September 18.

Anti-Japan demonstrations spread across China, reaching more than 100 cities, with Japanese businesses targeted for looting and damages. China's Internet was alive with condemnation of Japan on September 18, the anniversary of the Japanese military's invasion of China in 1931.

Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called upon China to calm its citizens and ensure the safety of the roughly 125,000 Japanese citizens in China. In Tokyo on September 17, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta echoed the appeal for calm and reminded his audience that if attacked, all territory under Japanese administration would qualify for U.S. defense assistance obligations in the U.S.-Japan security treaty. Panetta met with Chinese military leaders in Beijing on September 18, urging a peaceful resolution of the dispute and noting the U.S. commitment to Japan's defense.

The disputed islands sit above an area rich in fisheries that has long been thought to contain significant hydrocarbon resources. Taiwan and China both claimed these islands when the United States returned them to Japanese sovereignty in the Okinawa Reversion Agreement that ended the U.S. occupation of Okinawa in 1972. Today, China's claim that its exclusive economic zone [EEZ] extends to the edge of its continental shelf could provide yet another challenge to Tokyo. Sovereignty over the Senkakus would allow China to extend its EEZ right up to Japan's territorial waters.

Stirring Nationalism

Nationalist activism on both sides of the East China Sea has intensified over this dispute. Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara exacerbated this current round when he announced his intention to purchase the islands on April 16. A month later, he established a Senkaku fund, and as of September 13 had collected approximately 1.47 billion yen ($18.7 million) from more than 100,000 donations. Ishihara said he was stepping forward because the national government was too weak in response to Chinese sovereignty claims, thereby forcing the hand of the Noda cabinet to acquire the islands.

Since the normalization of relations between Tokyo and Beijing in the 1970s, leaders of both countries have sought to prevent these islands from taking center stage in the relationship. Yet there have been repeated efforts to lay claim to them, with incidents involving Chinese fishing boats and activists from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

In September 2010, a Chinese fishing trawler rammed two Japan Coast Guard vessels in waters around the Senkakus. The ship captain was detained until the investigation was complete, prompting a diplomatic dispute and China's decision to temporarily suspend exports of rare earth materials to Japan. The captain was released by prosecutors after two weeks, but the incident sparked an intense domestic debate over Japan's weakness in the face of Chinese pressure.

Public skepticism of Chinese government intentions coupled with the rise of Chinese influence increasingly worry Japanese and create doubts about Tokyo's ability to manage China. Increasingly, Tokyo is turning to Washington for support in its relations with Beijing.

End of the Status Quo?

The dispute over these islands goes beyond history; it also shapes debate over the Japanese and Chinese claims to fisheries and seabed resources of the East China Sea. Tokyo and Beijing have been careful to keep their navies far from the islands, yet the growing presence of Chinese ships from various maritime agencies worries Tokyo. Tokyo has used its coast guard in response to Chinese activists, but surveillance of the East China Sea is carried out by the Japanese navy, the Maritime Self Defense Force.

The five Senkaku islands are currently uninhabited, but Governor Ishihara and candidates in the LDP leadership race now argue for stationing Japanese government personnel there to ensure their defense.

Presented by

Sheila A. Smith is the senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She writes regularly at Asia Unbound.

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