In the East China Sea are a group of uninhabited islands which consist of five islets and three barren rocks. They are situated approximately 120 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan, 200 nautical miles east of the Chinese mainland and 200 nautical miles southwest of the Japanese island of Okinawa. They are known by the Japanese as the Senkaku Islands and China knows them as the Diaoyu Islands.
The Chinese claim the discovery and control of the islands from the 14th century.
The Japanese and Chinese are now disputing who rightly owns these islands and there has been a long history of disputes over these strategically place islands. After the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese war the islands were taken over by Japan. Japan had administrative control of the islands until the end of the Second World War, when America took over and then from 1972 onwards, but the islands were privately owned (by a Japanese owner). In 2012 there was increased political tensions over the islands which lead to unrest in mainland China and at sea with stand offs between the Chinese and Japanese. The Japanese government had bought the islands from the private owners, and China took the view that it was not going to “sit back and watch its territorial sovereignty violated.”
The Chinese military have been taking a more confrontational approach to the islands. China also blocked exports of rare earth minerals to Japan, after confrontations between Japan and Chinese fishermen. This incident showed Chinese nationalism and rising political and naval power along with its intentions to control a wider area of sea around the country. The islands have therefore proved to be highly geo-politically significant and highlight the growth of China’s naval force and wish to control much of the China Seas. They would be within an area that ultimately China wishes to control that well outside of the traditional jurisdiction of territorial waters.
In the late 1960s there was a potential oil discover nearby: the desire to control resources was bound to make the islands more significant. International disputes such as this, are fundamentally about the resource potential but also ask many questions about the sovereignty of islands which have been discussed in this paper. The situation is perhaps unclear on a legal footing with historical factors and treaties complicating the situation over time: does China have an old right to the islands or is Japan the more rightful owner despite having consequences imposed upon it after World War Two?
Ultimately time will tell who controls these islands, which on the face of it offer very little other than a rocky outcrop and wildlife reserve: then, of course, there is the potential to explore for new oil reserves. Watch the Senkaku Islands (if you’re Japanese) or the Diaoyu Islands (if you’re Chinese).
Ultimately the islands that are at the centre of a geo-politcial game to control more than a few rocky islands. For a wider appreciation of the political context of the situation, Geoff Dyer has written a book entitled “The Contest Of The Century: The New Era Of Competition With China” which covers the wider geo-politics and mentions the islands.