The row concerns eight small islands or rocks in the East China Sea Ties between China and Japan have been repeatedly strained by a territorial row over a group of islands, known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China.
What is the row about?
At the heart of the dispute are eight uninhabited islands and rocks in the East China Sea. They have a total area of about 7 sq km and lie north-east of Taiwan, east of the Chinese mainland and south-west of Japan’s southern-most prefecture, Okinawa. The islands are controlled by Japan. They matter because they are close to important shipping lanes, offer rich fishing grounds and lie near potential oil and gas reserves. They are also in a strategically significant position, amid rising competition between the US and China for military primacy in the Asia-Pacific region.
What is Japan’s claim?
Japan says it surveyed the islands for 10 years in 19th Century and determined that they were uninhabited. On 14 January 1895 Japanerected a sovereignty marker and formally incorporated the islands into Japanese territory as part of the Nansei Shoto islands. After World War Two, Japan renounced claims to a number of territories and islands including Taiwan in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. The Nansei Shoto islands came under US trusteeship, being returned to Japan in 1971 under the Okinawa reversion deal.Japan says China raised no objections to the San Francisco deal. And it says that it is only since the 1970s, when the issue of oil resources in the area emerged, that Chinese and Taiwanese authorities began pressing their claims.
What is China’s claim?
China says that the Diaoyu islands have been part of its territory since ancient times, serving as important fishing grounds administered by the province of Taiwan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said that this is “fully proven by history and is legally well-founded”. Taiwan was ceded to Japan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, after the Sino-Japanese war. When Taiwan was returned in the Treaty of San Francisco, China says the islands should also have been returned. But Beijing says Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek did not raise the issue, even when the Diaoyu islands were named in the later Okinawa reversion deal, because he depended on the US for support. Separately, Taiwan also claims the islands.
How have they pressed their claims?
Japan controls the islands, and its coast guards patrol the surrounding waters. But actions by nationalist activists on both sides have repeatedly exacerbated tension.
What is the role of the US?
The US and Japan forged a security alliance in the wake of World War II and formalised it in 1960. Under the deal, the US is given military bases in Japan in return for its promise to defend Japan in the event of an attack. This means – in theory – that if conflict were to erupt between China and Japan, Japan would expect US military back-up. Some US analysts, however, have pointed out that intervention in any Japan-China islands clash is not in America’s interests. The US continues to express vocal support for the Japan-US alliance and – on the islands row – has called for cool heads to prevail, warning of the high stakes involved in any potential escalation.
The Senkaku/Diaoyu issue complicates efforts by Japan and China to resolve a dispute over oil and gas fields in the East China Seathat they both claim. It also highlights the more robust attitude China has been taking to its territorial claims in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea. And it poses worrying questions about regional security as China’s military modernises as the USembarks on its “pivot” to Asia. In both China and Japan, meanwhile, the dispute has a tendency to ignite nationalist passions on both sides, putting pressure on politicians to appear tough and ultimately making any possible resolution even harder to find.