Tensions over a few rocks in the East China Sea – which the Chinese call the Diaoyu and the Japanese the Senkaku, and which both countries claim – erupted in 2012 when the Japanese government elected to nationalize three of the islands.
Leaving aside the abundant national resources in the surrounding waters, historical and political considerations have made this issue more complex than any other territorial dispute in East Asia. To China, the issue is an unbearable reminder of past Japanese imperialism. To Japan, the islands represent a strategic outpost in the first island chain, a critical component of its attempt to balance a rapidly rising China. For the U.S., meanwhile, maintaining a status quo that effectively means Japanese jurisdiction is part of a much broader regional strategy.
Origins of a DisputeEnjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The Cairo Communiqué (or Cairo Declaration) is regarded as one of the most important documents concluded by the Allies prior to the end of World War II. In particular, it stated that Japan should be stripped of all territories it had taken in the Pacific and that it should return Manchuria, Formosa and the Pescadores to China.
Subsequently, however, China suffered division as a result of its Civil War, and the international community could not agree on which side should participate in the San Francisco Peace Conference. The Ryukyus and other islands, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu, were placed under U.S. trusteeship until 1971, when the U.S. decided to return to Japan the power of administration, legislation and jurisdiction over the Ryukyu and Daito islands. The U.S. believed that the agreement included the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. For its part, China decried the deal, but elected to shelve the dispute and maintain the status quo, at least until the recent crisis.
While China was officially quiet on the dispute, there was activity at the civilian level during this period. This ranged from the voicing of patriotic slogans to a number of landings on the islands. Chinese fishing boats continued to enter the local waters. Before 2010, the Japanese typically responded cautiously to these activities.
A May 1969 UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East Report identified potential oil and gas reserves in the disputed area, which obviously made the issue more complicated. Yet, both governments sought to maintain the status quo, despite clashes over fisheries and other issues. Behind this official stance, however, there was resentment. As the International Crisis Group puts it: “Due to the brutal Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s, sentiments over the status of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands run deeper in the Chinese psyche than any other territorial dispute in modern Chinese history, with the exception of Taiwan.”
Hence, when the Japanese government detained a Chinese fishing boat captain in 2010 and subsequently purchased three of the islets in 2012, China saw it as time to end its passive stance. Beijing stepped up patrols by China Marine Surveillance and the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, the two largest Chinese maritime law enforcement agencies. Until that point, Sino-Japanese relations have been a relationship of what scholars have called “hot economics and cold politics.” No longer. The international community now worries about the possibility of a miscalculation that could lead to conflict. Their concerns are not misplaced. On December 13, 2012, Japan scrambled air force fighters to intercept a Chinese government plane, and in February 2013, Tokyo lodged a protest with Beijing over an incident in which a Chinese naval vessel locked its fire control radar on a Japanese warship.
A Gentlemen’s Agreement No More
In the 1970s, facing a growing schism with the Soviet Union, China sought to normalize relations with both the U.S. and Japan. For Japan, after two decades’ economic growth, China’s market potential was attractive. To facilitate a peace treaty, the two sides avoided wrangling over the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue.
In fact, China had its own problem, which it preferred wasn’t discussed: Although it claims legal right to the islands via historical discovery and effective occupation, there is a lack of evidence showing continuous effective control.
Hence, on October 25, 1978, Deng Xiaoping told then Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, “It is totally understandable that we have different views on some issues. For example, we have different opinions on the place that you call the Senkaku Islands and we call the Diaoyu Islands. It is wise to avoid this topic in negotiation. The younger generation will be wiser and we should regard our common interests as the priority.” Fukuda accepted the statement. This meeting, along with other announcements and speeches, is widely regarded – particularly by China – as a consensus to shelve the dispute.