Brits say Falklands; Argentines say Malvinas; Japan says Senkaku; China says Diaoyu. Territorial claims are funny old things, often inciting the most fervent of passions over the least obviously appealing lumps of rock. Most such claims stretch back centuries and only acquire sudden value when ownership is threatened by a rival claim, usually provoked by the discovery of something with a far greater value lurking in the neighbourhood. In the case of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, these uninhabited locations resembling the landscapes upon which Godzilla battled his fellow mutant beasts are currently at the centre of a dispute between Japan and China, a dispute placing one of the most fragile fault-lines of the Far East in peril.
The waters encircled by Taiwan, China, South Korea and Japan boast a proliferation of tiny islands that even outnumber the similarly scattered little landmasses dotted around the tip of Scotland; for Japan, the most prominent served as a convenient barrier between it and the US Army during the Second World War, though the Senkaku Islands are more distanced from the Japanese mainland, closer to Taiwan. There were no real territorial claims made upon them in the eras of the ancient Chinese and Japanese Empires; British ships referred to them as the Pinnacle Islands and their value was solely as navigational markers.
The success of Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894/5) saw the dominance of the East Asian region shift from China to the victor, marking Japan’s beginnings as a major military power that would ultimately carry it all the way to Hiroshima. Although Korea was regarded as the main prize of the conflict, it was the Senkaku Islands that were first claimed as imperial possessions in the aftermath of the War, and China didn’t seem particularly concerned. A Japanese fish processing plant was established on one of the islands, Uotsuri-shima, which remained active until WWII; the very presence of the plant on the island appeared to certify the claims that it and the neighbouring islands had been incorporated into Japan’s sovereign territory.
Even when the Senkaku Islands fell under American control following Japan’s surrender in 1945, China wasn’t especially vocal about ownership claims. China only really began to make a fuss at the end of the 1960s when the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East discovered oil and gas resources situated around the islands. Despite this potentially profitable future for the vicinity, the US returned ownership to Japan in 1971, something that prompted Chinese territorial claims to become official Peking policy. Taiwan had also been ceded to Japan in 1895, and it was the return of Taiwan into Chinese hands after the Second World War that China now retrospectively says should have gone hand-in-hand with the acquisition of the Senkaku Islands. History is certainly a flexible friend when it comes to territorial claims.
Bizarrely, some of the islands are privately-owned and are rented by the Japanese Government, though each outright purchase by Japan is regarded as a provocative gesture by China. One of the islands is used as a practice range by the US military, maintaining the presence America has had in the region ever since it funded the post-war financial reconstruction of Japan. That part of the demilitarisation of Japan involved the US taking on the role of the country’s defender in the event of any attack places America in a difficult position during the current dispute. Add the unstable spectre of North Korea to the equation and it’s plain to see how delicate the situation in the Pacific really is.
Strategically, the Senkaku Islands are situated in significant shipping lanes as well as fruitful fishing grounds, not to mention the oil and gas reserves, of course; but they also serve as a microcosm of the battle for control of the region between China and America. Over the last four years, China has deliberately flouted Japan’s ownership of the islands by sailing its ships into Japanese territorial waters and has also created the ‘East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone’ in an area covering Senkaku, one that the penetration of by non-Chinese aircraft apparently requires adherence to rules laid down in Beijing. Neither Japan nor the US have adhered to these rules.
Old enmities between China and Japan have been revived by this dispute, ones that rouse nationalist passions on both sides and ones that politicians of the respective nations seek to appease in the eternal quest for popularity. But while the world’s attention appears perennially focused on the Middle East, it is perhaps the Far East we should be keeping a closer eye on, especially when one considers that a couple of months ago three Russian warships – accompanied by a Chinese Navy frigate – sailed past the Senkaku Islands in what could well be perceived as an act of choreographed provocation. Any Russian intervention in disputes between nations rarely bodes well for a peaceful resolution.
© The Editor