January 20, 2018
Thursday, April 13, 2017

Growing tension in Asia casts fresh shadows over Japan-China sovereignty dispute

Part of the disputed Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) in the East China Sea.
Part of the disputed Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) in the East China Sea.
Part of the disputed Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) in the East China Sea.
By James Grainger
News Editor


Tokyo and Beijing remain at odds over disputed islands, just as the possibility of US-led military action against North Korea arises

North Korea is firing missiles into the ocean, just a couple of hundred kilometres off the coast of Japan. Tokyo is warning of increased Chinese militarisation of disputed territories in the South China Sea, a move that potentially threatens global trade and regional relations. Beijing, for its part, is decrying the deployment of an advanced anti-missile US defence system (THAAD) in South Korea, claiming it could be used against its military, just as Japan considers its own defensive options. The Japanese government, meanwhile, says it is planning to send naval vessels on oceanic patrol. The US government finds itself prompted to reiterate its position that it will stand firmly by its allies, while demanding China do more to tackle Pyongyang’s attempt to acquire nuclear weapons. US President Donald Trump makes headlines around the world by declaring that if China “won’t solve North Korea, we will.” “All options are on the table,” he adds.

To say things are getting tense in the region would be an understatement. 

And yet, as fears of military and naval conflict in Asia rise, the region’s two heavyweights, Japan and China, remain at odds over a small group of uninhabited islands — five islets and three barren rocks — in the East China Sea.

Controlled by Japan, the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands in China) are located around 225 nautical miles southwest of the Japanese island of Okinawa, 90 nautical miles north of the Japanese island of Ishigaki and around 180 nautical miles from the Chinese mainland. As well as being claimed by the governments in both Beijing and Tokyo, Taiwan has also made a claim (in fact, both the Chinese and Taiwanese governments agree the islands are part of Taiwan’s Toucheng township, in perhaps one of the only diplomatic areas of agreement between Taipei and Beijing).

Each side, of course, looks to history for its claim. The Chinese government says that the islands have been part of its territory for hundreds of years, citing “ancient documents” that experts have since picked holes in. The Japanese government, meanwhile, dates back its sovereignty claim to an 1895 Cabinet decision to incorporate the Senkaku Islands into Okinawa Prefecture, back when the territory was sparsely populated (Japan is the only nation to have had citizens living on the island over the past century). Though Tokyo surrendered the territory at the end of World War II (leaving the islands US-administered), in 1971, the Okinawa Reversion Agreement saw them fall back under Japanese control.

Despite the reams of documentation and the arguing on all sides, however, it was not until that year that the dispute really began to pick up steam, when reports emerged from the UN of potential underwater oil and gas reserves and interest grew in the East China Sea’s fishing supplies and stocks. Beijing’s claim in particular began to look suspiciously timely.

In recent years too, the stakes were raised considerably when Japan moved to nationalise the islands in 2012, an act seen by some as defensive but which sparked protests against Japanese firms and products on Chinese soil.

Increasingly relevant

But despite this historical focus, the dispute between Japan and China becomes even more relevant when set in line with Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. Just last week, reports emerged of a Chinese fighter plane being spotted on an island in that sea, where Beijing has been accused of “militarising” outposts and building artificial islands in a bid to gain more territory in a region where many important global shipping lanes are located.

Japan, which does not have skin in that game, so to speak, in the South China Sea, is eagerly watching the situation nonetheless. Foreign Ministry officials told the Herald that it sees the issues in the South China Sea as “related but separate,” as they seek an end to unilateral military actions by Beijing in the ocean’s waters. Japan wants the Chinese government to “respect judgement” and the “rule of law,” in both areas though it remains confident the US will support its positions in the seas.

Washington has repeatedly reiterated its position to the government in Tokyo, confirming that the Senkaku Islands fall under its protection treaty with Japan. During a visit two months ago to the region, US Defense Secretary James Mattis repeated those undertakings too. And yet fears of a confrontation between the two regional heavyweights remain.

In the meantime, provocations continue. Officials in the Japanese government told the Herald that China has repeatedly trespassed into its “sovereign territorial waters,” raising the stakes again. According to figures collated by the government, in 2016 more than 100 Chinese ships entered Japanese waters, the second-largest number in 12 months since September, 2012.

China has also buzzed its planes into Japanese airspace, as the likelihood of a clash — whether deliberate or in error — increases. And Japan has moved to address this tension too. Last month, its second-biggest helicopter carrier, the 284-metre-long Kaga, entered into service and — according to reports this week — it plans to send that vessel’s sister ship, the Izumo, on a three-month tour of South China Sea, in a firm message to China.

Just last week again, Chinese Coast Guard vessels sailed through Japanese territorial waters near the Senkakus, the Kyodo news agency reported, before heading into Tokyo’s waters. One day later, despite having been issued with a warning, Chinese vessels returned, days before Donald Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping at the US president’s Mar-a-Lago retreat.

Tensions on Asian seas are rising and the international community must hope they don’t come to a head. The change in the Oval Office may eventually be beneficial for the US allies in the region, but conflict and clashes are in nobody’s interest.

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