Azja-Pacyfik

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Isles: What is it all about? (added on 2012-10-18)

The conflict revolves around just seven, or rather five islands. All of them are relatively small. Together they cover an area of approximately 7 km². All are mountainous and uninhabited. In a geographical sense they are regarded as the southernmost extension of the Ryukyu Archipelago.

The Chinese side, seen here as both the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and the Chinese Republic on Taiwan, since – significantly - the position of Beijing and Taipei is the same in this case, states that the islands were discovered during the reign of the Ming dynasty, between the 15th and 16th century and have been under Chinese jurisdiction ever since. China has lost control over them after the war with  Japan, which she lost, and the infamous for her Shimonoseki Treaty (1895), in accordance with which the right to Taiwan and surrounding islands (including the Pescadores and the Diaoyu Islands) was ceded to Japan. Bound by the agreements from Cairo (1943) and Potsdam (1945), Japan lost both Taiwan and the “surrounding islands” (without specifying the islands in question) to China (Taiwan separated from mainland in 1949, becoming a new entity).

The Japanese side, on the other hand, presents the following argument. No one has ever ruled these territories, no one has colonized them. The Senkaku Isles constitute an integral part of the Ryukyu Archipelago (a statement China disagrees with). USA, bound by the 1951 San Francisco Treaty, ending the occupation of Japan. promised to return Okinawa and said archipelago – this promise was finally fulfilled in 1972 .

A new dispute arose around the islands at the break of the sixties and seventies, partly due to (an opinion shared by many) the discovery of natural gas and oil reserves in 1968, which have not been properly studied since then, due to the difficulty in establishing the region’s appurtenance. In 1972, when the PRC and Japan were normalizing their diplomatic relationship, both sides postponed the conflict “to be resolved by future generations”. However, it has been coming up over and over again, with bigger or smaller intensity.

The current, most dramatic phase of this territorial dispute started from a statement of Ishihara Shintarō, the nationalist-oriented governor of the Tokyo prefecture, from May 15 2012 in Washington. Then he called for a final seizure, or “acquisition” of the Senkaku Isles by the Japanese government.

Since that moment tension between the three parties involved (and emotions on the Chinese side) was growing. An eruption came on September 10, 2012 when the Japanese government decided to buy "from private hands" the three biggest Senkaku islands, thus answering Ishihara's call. In response to this, in the bigger Chinese cities, mainly on the coast, huge anti-Japanese demonstrations broke out - the biggest since April 2005 (when the reason was the interpretation of WWII events in a Japanese history handbooks). Those were relatively swiftly ended by authorities in Beijing. However, what is worse, Chinese ships (even warships) entered waters around the islands, Beijing "postponed" the celebration of the 40th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations and Xi Jingping, designated for the  post of the head of the party and the president of the PRC, called this purchase "a farce."

The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is a difficult one to solve as neither China nor Japan have a historically well-justified claim to the islands. An attempt to prove the Japanese identity of the Senkaku Islnds or the Chinese identity of the Diaoyu Islands is nothing more than an attempt to stretch the contemporary idea of the nation-state to pre-modern times when both the Chinese and the Japanese used totally different concepts of state.

Nevertheless, this feud has a great meaning and in the broader context it is about boarders on the East China Sea. China, striving for the role of a regional superpower, is issuing a challenge not only to Japan but also to the United States who, since 1951, feel responsible for the peacekeeping in the Taiwan Strait. For Tokyo, on the other hand,  maintaining the hold on Senkaku is of vital importance because Japan has similar conflicts with Korea over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands and Russia over the Kuril Islands. The Japanese - Chinese conflict is closely watched by Vietnam, the Philippines and India who are involved in similar boarder disputes with China.

Unfortunately, the current, so intense and spectacular phase of this conflict does not bode well as neither of the three sides involved came forward with a proposal of a constructive solution. Thus we need to continue watching those events closely. This is a source of unrest and a potential conflict influencing the situation in the whole of East Asia.

Redakcja: azjapacyfik@swps.edu.pl. Wykonanie strony: Stanisław Meyer, stan.meyer@uj.edu.pl.