The Devil in the Deep Sea
China and Japan have been bickering for years over a group of islands in the East China Sea and there is no solution in sight as to who owns them.
For over four decades, an archipelago in the East China Sea has remained a bone of contention between Japan and China. Known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and Diaoyu Islands in China, the site has become the epicentre of a territorial dispute with a history that spans many centuries.
Over the years, the row has taken distinct forms and emerged as a stumbling block in bilateral relations between both countries.
Until recently, the matter had attracted little more than a diplomatic whisper. However, in April 2012, the dispute emerged as a major conflict of interest between China and Japan when Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara vowed to buy the archipelago from its private Japanese owner.
Subsequently, Japan brokered a deal to buy three of the islands. However, this earned the ire of the Chinese government and triggered a series of protests. Since then, China has repeatedly tried to assert its stake in the territory. In November 2013, it decided to create a new air defence identification zone along the archipelago. Under this policy, airplanes would be required to comply with travel regulations set by Beijing.
Although the dispute has been ramped up in recent times, it can only be understood through a historical context. The eight uninhabited islands which lie north-east of Taiwan, east of the Chinese mainland and southwest of Okinawa are predominantly controlled by Japan. Since they are located at a proximity to shipping lanes and lie near oil and gas reserves, the islets enjoy a strategic position.
In the nineteenth century, Japan surveyed the islands for ten years and earmarked the area as part of Japanese territory. After the Second World War, Japan withdrew it claim to a large number of these islands under the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. In 1971, the islands were returned to Japan through a reversion deal.
According to Japanese authorities, China did not take a keen interest in establishing its stake over the area during these deliberations. To the contrary, the latter only began to take a keen interest in the ownership of the islands when reports of oil resources in the region began to surface.
On the other hand, China insists the islands have been a part of its territory since times immemorial. A large number of Chinese government officials still believe that the Diaoyu Islands should have been returned to the country. In order to add weight to their claim, they have relied on an oft-
repeated conspiracy theory. Chinese leaders have asserted that the country’s claim to ownership was brushed under the carpet to serve the narrow interests of the United States.
Meanwhile, the US has thrown its weight behind Japan’s ownership claims. It has repeatedly stated that the islands fall within its security treaty with Japan. The US has also pledged to defend Japan in the event of an attack on its sovereignty in return for permission to occupy military bases in the country.
However, President Barack Obama has voiced concerns over the conflict surrounding the islands. He has warned that if China and Japan do not resolve the dispute in an amicable manner, both countries would find themselves between the devil and the deep sea.
At this critical juncture, both countries appear to have taken the initiative to eliminate tension. Japan and China plan to arrange a meeting in Singapore in May to develop a mechanism to prevent clashes and instability along the East China Sea islands.
Both countries are interested in finding a solution to put ongoing tensions to rest and implement a strategy for change by the end of the year.
It is far too early to determine whether the talks will be bear fruit or, for that matter, come to pass. Earlier, in November, Japan’s premier and China’s president agreed to hold talks to reach a tangible solution to the crisis.
Both sides have succeeded in taking a series of positive steps in this regard. For instance, both countries have decided to prevent the risk of a military conflict in the area by agreeing to use a common radio frequency for their ships and planes. Various officials from the defense ministries in both countries are optimistic about this venture.
More significantly, Japan and China also plan to establish a hotline to strengthen communication between senior defense officials from both sides. Through enhanced cooperation and coordination between both parties, the risk of a simmering conflict is likely to be averted.
Nevertheless, analysts are skeptical about the overall success of this since both countries seem to be beating around the bush rather than finding an effective solution to the dispute.
It is equally difficult to forget the past and wipe the slate clean. For several years, Japan has tried to block Chinese fishermen from entering the Senkaku Islands. Similarly, maritime patrol vessels from China have constantly intruded into the territory and have triggered a backlash from Japanese authorities.
Amid growing uncertainty, both countries have dressed up the issue surrounding the sovereignty of the islands along the Pacific into a struggle for national interests. China’s president has focused on expanded presence of China in northeast Asia’s skies and waters to assert its monopoly in the region. Simultaneously, Japan has failed to buckle under pressure and accept China’s demands.
In March 2014, the Japanese Foreign Ministry published a map released by the Chinese government in 1969 which refers to the archipelago as Senkaku Islands rather the Diaoyu Island. Through this step, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida proved that Japan’s neighbors have considered the islands as a part of Japanese territory.
At this stage, both countries are driven by the instinct of selfpreservation. National interest is far more important and is likely to frustrate the scope for an appropriate solution. Furthermore, the US will be unable to make a difference in this regard if it continues to follow a biased approach. According to Chinese analysts, the Obama administration’s attempts to strengthen ties with Japan serve as welcome proof of a strategy to stem China’s influence. The solution to such a deep-seated territorial dispute can only be found by a neutral body which has no stake in the matter.