Tensions between Japan and China in connection with long-standing rival claims to sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea have deepened since September 2012, with nationalist sentiment being stirred up in both countries. Taiwan also claims the islands. Japan, which administers the islands, does not accept that there is a dispute to be resolved. China insists that there is. This note briefly summarizes the competing claims and reviews developments over the last six months or so.Jump to full report >>
The eight uninhabited islands and rocks are called the Senkaku Islands in Japan, the Diaoyu Islands in China and the Tiaoyutai Islands in Taiwan. The islands lie to the southwest of Japan’s southernmost Island, Okinawa; to the east of the Chinese mainland; and northeast of Taiwan. They are strategically important in terms of maritime navigation and shipping, natural resources, including fisheries and hydrocarbons, and for defence purposes. China and Japan have also been unable to agree a maritime boundary in the East China Sea.
The September 2012 crisis was triggered when the Japanese government bought three of the islands from a private Japanese owner. While this move appears to have been largely prompted by the fact that the Japanese authorities wanted to prevent the nationalist governor of Tokyo from buying them, China viewed this step as a provocative alteration of the status quo and subsequently publicly declared its territorial sea baselines and declared that the islands were under Chinese administration. This reflected a new Chinese concept, which Japan rejects, of ‘overlapping control’ over the islands. Since then, there has been a growing number of tense stand off’s between Chinese and Japanese ships and planes in the area, but none have so far escalated into direct conflict.
While there have been tentative signs over recent months that both sides are open to efforts to reduce tensions over the islands, questions remain about how far the will and capacity to stabilize the situation exists. According to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, mechanisms for communication and de-escalation in the event of another incident are poorly developed and mistrust between the two countries remains high. However, as major trading partners, both also have wider economic interests to consider.
Commons Briefing papers SN06475
Author: Jon Lunn