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The Senkaku/Diaoyu Island Dispute in the East China Sea

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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by Amelia Moura

This figure shows the location of the islands in relation to China, Taiwan, and Japan. Map by Koo, 2010.

This figure shows the location of the islands in relation to China, Taiwan, and Japan. Map by Koo, 2010.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have a long, complex, history of sovereignty disputes. This string of three uninhabitable islands and five rocks which, in total, amount to only 2.7 square miles in the East China Sea, has a past defined by conflicting claims by Japan, China, and even Taiwan. Each country recognizes that the islands are located in waters rich with fish and potentially petroleum and natural gas, and have a recent pattern of using paramilitary or even military forces to test the limits of peaceful confrontation over the islands.

The East China Sea is full of Chinese ships from various paramilitary naval forces, looking for excuses to penetrate the Japanese Coast Guard patrol line around the Senkaku Islands, and undermine Japanese control of the islands. The new Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, has suggested settling for dual party benefit and ownership, but the People’s Republic of China government, led by the new President Xi Jinping, has declined those offers.

The Chinese say the Diaoyu were included in the Ming Dynasty maritime territory, since the islands were drawn in on ancient maps. Although Chinese fishermen were known to spend time on and around the islands, no official residency was ever established. On the other hand, Japan views the islands as inherently theirs, as they have controlled them for the most recent period of time.

Japanese officials believe that since the islands had been uninhabited until the Sino-Japanese war ended in 1895, they had every right to annex the territory in January of 1894 (Manyin 2013). Because they formally annexed the islands in 1894, they do not believe the islands were a part of the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, which handed control of Taiwan and its ‘associated islands’ over to the Japanese. The implications of this loosely worded treaty arose after WWII, when Japan, under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, relinquished all power over Taiwan and its surrounding islands, which China understands to include the Diaoyu (Koo 2010).

China takes its claims further, using geography as a justification for sovereignty. Chinese officials know that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) they have a natural right to all of the land on their continental shelf. As defined in Part VI, Article 76 of UNCLOS III, “The continental shelf of a coastal State comprises the seabed and subsoil…to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles” from the nation’s coast (UN 1982). China embraces this rule, claiming all of the land on its shelf out to the Okinawa Trough. However, there are not 400 nautical miles between China and Japan, so their boundaries overlap.

Additionally, sovereignty is complicated by the provisions that UNCLOS makes for exclusive economic zones (EEZs), defined as the waters from the edge of a nation’s territorial waters (12 nautical miles from shore) out to the 200 nautical mile limit. In these waters, others are allowed to navigate through but that nation is responsible for the preservation or exploitation of the natural resources in the region. As seen in Figure 2, the maritime boundaries, and thus the EEZs, have not been ironed out and there is a sizeable gap around the Okinawa Trough that has yet to be resolved.

The most recent dispute was sparked by former Japanese Prime Minster Yoshihiko Noda’s decision to nationalize the final three islands he did not already control (Economist 2013). This political move aimed to prevent Japanese nationalist Shintaro Ishihara from buying the islands himself. Ishihara, like many nationalists, feel the Japanese government is not doing enough to stand up to China in this dispute, and that personally owning the islands would be a more effective way to diminish China’s chances of control. While Japan has patrolled the islands since WWII, China recently has sent ships into the area in an effort to challenge Japanese control, which is a part of China’s “aggressive if not expansionist military policy” (Victoria 2013).

If China were to succeed, it could prove that Japan has no control and therefore no right of sovereignty. Although several Japanese warning shots have been fired and the Coast Guard sprayed down a Taiwanese ship with water canons, no actual violence has occurred. The Japanese government has increased the Coast Guard budget to create “a special unit…with 10 new large patrol boats, two helicopter carriers and a 600-strong force” to battle Chinese invasions (Ozawa 2013). Similarly, China is also allocating more money towards its military defenses.

The United States is an ally of Japan and could easily be drawn into military conflicts in the region. The US executive branch has urged Japanese President Shinzo Abe to stay out of a direct military conflict, and has generally avoided taking an explicit position ownership of the islands. The US Congress’s stance on the island dispute is that it “acknowledges the administration of Japan over the Senkaku Islands…has national interests in freedom of navigation…supports a collaborative diplomatic process by claimants to resolve territorial disputes without coercion…reaffirms its commitment to the Government of Japan” and would provide military aid if an armed attack were to be made on Japan (US Congress 2012).

In addition to using nationalism as a tool to establish ownership, the Japanese have proposed adding the Senkaku islands to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This recent development is a roundabout way of achieving rule over the islands and it could also beneficially bring ecotourism to the area. UNESCO requires that the nominating country must be the sovereign , so a petition from Japan implies power over the territory (Xinhua 2013). It is highly unlikely that the UN would approve the site given the disputed ownership, and China has made it clear that its position on sovereignty will never waver. There are certain to be oil and gas deposits under the East China Sea. Controlling these islands means control oil fields and any other resources discovered in the area. This field could contain vast amounts of oil and natural gas.

 The map shows the different EEZs (maritime boundaries) claimed by Japan and China. Map by Menas Borders, 2010.

The map shows the different EEZs (maritime boundaries) claimed by Japan and China. Map by Menas Borders, 2010.

Taiwan, though clearly a weaker voice in the debate, also has an interest in the uninhabited islands, because its people have always depended on fishing in those waters.  If China or Japan wins sovereignty over the islands, Taiwan will have to bargain with them to continue their fishing practices. While Japan is in a favorable position to pit China and Taiwan against each other because of its large investments in both countries and current control of the area, its main concern is its growing economic reliance on China. In fact, Japan’s dependence almost tripled from 1997 to 2006, which means it must be conscious of Chinese wishes in order to maintain good economic ties (Koo 2010).

For centuries, Chinese, Japanese, and Taiwanese fishermen have been using the East China Sea to feed their nations, but the introduction of UNCLOS and EEZ’s has altered the dynamic of the East China Sea fishermen. Fishing rights are not a new issue because in 1997, China and Japan signed an agreement in the East China Sea providing for a Provisional Measures Zone, where the two parties would cooperate and “have access to fishery resources but exercise restrained jurisdiction” (Su 2005). It was a step towards compromising and solving the maritime boundary problem, but they left out the Senkaku islands from the agreement altogether.

Author Bio: Amelia Moura is a first year student in the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences where she is pursuing a major in Environmental Studies and a minor in Forensic Psychology. She is participating in the Guam and Palau course to gain field experience and further her knowledge of marine ecosystem management around the world.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences through the Environmental Studies Program.   This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

About the Author: Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and director of the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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