Japan and China's territorial disputes.

Why Japan and China Are Quarreling Over Eight Tiny Islands

Photo courtesy of BehBeh, public domain Japan and China flags all via Wikipedia Commons.

Located between eastern China, northern Taiwan, and the southern islands of Japan is a group of eight tiny islands. All are uninhabited, and three of them are no more than barren rocks.

Still, tension periodically flares up as either of the nations try to lay claim to them, with plenty of sabre-rattling.

Here’s the reason they want the isles, and why the dispute is difficult to settle.

Why do these nations want the islands?

The tensions are fairly recent: although none of the nations recognized the others’ ownership claims, there was little reason to fight over them. Then, in 1969, a study by the Economic Commission for Asia reported that there could be massive reservoirs of oil and gas under the continental shelf of East China.

As described in the book “Toward a New Framework for Peaceful Settlement of China’s Territorial and Boundary Disputes,” this triggered the dispute, as whoever could claim the islands would be able to extract the off-shore resources.

Photo courtesy of “National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs), Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism,” via Wikipedia Commons

The tiny island dispute between China and Japan is separate from China’s expansionist island building in the South  China Sea, where China has built 7 new “islets”,  provisioning them with troops aircraft and radar stations.

What are the different claims?

Japan claims that they discovered the tiny islands in 1884 and, after a series of surveys that found no trace of ownership by the Chinese Qing dynasty, established ownership by settling them in 1895.

As detailed in a paper published by the Santa Clara University Journal of International Law, Japan claims the islands have been a part of the Okinawa island group since then.

Because of this, it says the islands were not part of the imperial territory it was required to return to pre-1895 status after World War II. In fact, the islands, along with Okinawa, were under U.S. administration until 1972, when control was returned to Japan. It points to the fact that China didn’t protest their ownership of the islands until oil was discovered.

China, however, says they discovered and used the Diaoyu islands long before Japan, pointing to historical documents showing that they were used as navigational aids as early as 1373, and were a part of the Ming dynasty in the sixteenth century.

They support this theory by pointing to Japanese maps prior to 1884 that show the islands.

And since China considers the islands a part of Taiwan – backed by Taiwan’s separate claim for the islands – they insist they should have been returned after World War II with the signing of the 1951 and 1952 San Francisco peace treaties.

So while Japan claims that they have a right to the islands because it found them unoccupied and has controlled them for over a century, China claims that they have been part of Chinese territory for centuries and should have been returned to them after World War II.

Photo courtesy of Jackopoid via Wikipedia Commons.

What could happen?

Potentially, a naval clash between Chinese and Japanese vessels could trigger the U.S.-Japanese alliance, forcing the America to enter the conflict on Japan’s side. In fact, the treaty specifies that the U.S. will defend areas that are under Japanese administration, which was confirmed as late as 2012 by defence secretary Leon Panetta.

As Panetta also stated, however, the U.S. doesn’t take any official side in the conflict, so while it would take up arms to defend them, the U.S. doesn’t officially recognize the islands as Japanese territory.

It seems unlikely that neither China or the U.S. would risk full-scale military or even nuclear conflict over this dispute, however. So for now, it will likely only remain a point of contention between China and Japan, sparking sparking further demonstrations and trade war activities – unless negotiations take place.


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Ole Skaar