• Wed
  • Dec 24, 2014
  • Updated: 8:17am
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 July, 2013, 4:38am

There's only one way to solve the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute

This isn't about national feelings of injustice, it's about the oil and gas deposits that it is believed may lie beneath these once-obscure islets


As the writer of the South China Morning Post’s Monitor column, Tom Holland attempts each day to make sense of the latest developments in business, finance and economic affairs in Hong Kong and mainland China.

Just when we all hoped the dispute over the Diaoyu/ Senkaku islets in the East China Sea had simmered down, the Japanese defence ministry had to go and stir things up again.

In its latest annual policy paper, published yesterday, the ministry insisted the uninhabited rocks "are an inherent territory of Japan", and dismissed China's own claim as "incompatible with the existing order of international law".

Tokyo accused Beijing of having "attempted to change the status quo by force". It complained that Chinese military ships and aircraft have repeatedly violated Japanese waters and airspace, and condemned Beijing for "dangerous acts that could give rise to a contingency situation".

Now, I know I am sailing into turbulent seas here. The last time I wrote a piece about this dispute, one reader wrote in to tell me I didn't have the faintest clue about how fiercely the injustice of Japan's claim over the islands burned in the heart of every Chinese.

He called for "the strongest actions that the Chinese government can take against the Japanese" and threatened extreme violence against certain sensitive parts of my anatomy for calling the whole spat "silly".

Well, if feelings of injustice over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands burn in the heart of any man or woman, Chinese or Japanese, he or she is a dupe.

No one but a tiny handful of people in China or Japan or anywhere else had even heard of the islets, let alone thought to quarrel over their ownership, until 1970, when the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East published a report suggesting the possible existence of oil and gas deposits under the waters around the islands.

At the time the islets were used only by the US navy as an occasional bombing range. But within months, both Japan and Taiwan - which then held the UN seat now occupied by China - had each proclaimed them to be an eternal and indivisible part of their own sovereign territory.

In other words, this is nothing but an economic dispute. Both Beijing and Tokyo are motivated by simple greed, with each eager to lay their hands on any oil and gas that might be there, and to deny their neighbour a share in the bounty.

But although the rewards of sovereignty over the islands remain notional, the economic costs of the dispute to both parties are very real.

When the quarrel blew up afresh last September, sales of Japanese-branded goods in China plunged, with the sales of Japanese-badged cars falling by between 20 and 30 per cent, even though almost all are manufactured in Chinese factories by Chinese joint-venture partners using Chinese-made parts. Only now are they beginning to recover.

Investment into China also suffered. As the first chart below shows, in the nine months before the dispute blew up, China and Southeast Asia received almost exactly the same share of Japanese outward investment. In the nine months since, however, Southeast Asia has received 50 per cent more.

And as the second chart shows, two-way tourist traffic between the two has slumped. Between 2006 and 2011, China was by far the favourite destination for Japanese tourists travelling abroad. Last year it was overtaken by Korea.

Neither China or Japan should look to international law to settle the quarrel. The historical treaties both like to cite are largely irrelevant, the principles involved - the doctrine of acquisitive prescription, for example - are too fuzzy, and the legal precedents too various.

If they want to sort things out, they should do what the Europeans did with the North Sea in the 1960s: draw a line equidistant between the nearest permanently inhabited land, and say "that side is yours, this side is mine".

Then they can get back to business - and get on with extracting any oil or gas they might find on their patch.



Related topics

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

Nice try, but.. This division was not a North Sea invention, but part of an international treaty governing exclusive economic territories. The British zones around the world include a number of disputed territories dating back to its emperial past, and at least in one case, an uninhabitated island (Rockall).
The distance to land only applies when the seabed in between is part of one continental shelf. Other precedents include the Arctic, where the distance from the respective continental shelf areas themselves comes into play.
The Diaoyus are separated from inhabitated Japanese islands by a deep sea trench which is wider than the distance between Britain and the Netherlands. China argues that this separates the two parts of the continental shelf, Japan claims it does not.
So not as simple as it seems, then...
Gee, with people are saying things like "Japan is the extremely cruel, very racist and barbaric race", I wonder why it seems so hard to come to a rational negotiated solution to the dispute.
hard times !
in the dispute of Diaoyu islets (or so-called Senkaku), there is only an outlet /outcome---might is right and the winner takes all ! Just wait and see which country will emerge to be the one to smile in the end !
i suggest that all claimants, under the auspices of the UN, declare the Senkakus as "Terra nullius" with agreement that no country can ever claim or settle on the useless rocks.
hard times !
Yeah,actually the disputed Diaoyu Islets (Senkaku Islands) are Taiwan's and belong to the Ilan Perfecture which is located at the north-east part of Taiwan Island.Even since the Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan (1895-1945),Diaoyu belonged to Taiwan government.It is undisputable.Yet now Taiwan is afraid of the powerful Japanese navy and air-force plus under the pressure of America,Taiwan can only sign a fishing agreement with Japan which allows Taiwanese fishermen to fish near the disputed Islets only but no territorial claim of them ! As the Chinese government claims that Taiwan is an integral part of China and so does the Diaoyu ! Its final destiny may be resolved through a battle----a fierce one maybe even if the GIs won't be involved ! Just wait and see.
Well put, Tom. This is most definitely an economic dispute. Unfortunately, in Asia consideration of mutual interests is next to nil. It’s almost always win/lose.
The War is not the best to resolve any dispute between the countries. Nobody win if war breaks out between China and Japan. America and Japan may not be the winner and China may not be necessarily a loser. Diaoyus island is always a part of Taiwan since 14 Century until 1895 when Japan occupied Taiwan. Mr. Tom Holland, I am Taiwanese originally. I know that Taiwan government has claimed Diaoyus island since Japan withdrew from the occupation of Taiwan, not what you have claimed 1970s. Unfortunately, Taiwan and China were still in Civil War then and weak and it was not able to sustain much America arbitrary decisions to give Japan a control of Diaoyus island. Mr. Holland, you should do a little research about Diaoyus Island history. Yes, US created this mass.

To prevent history repeating itself, one needs more sticks than carrots dealing with Japan. You give an inch, Japan will take a foot. Japan is the extremely cruel, very racist and barbaric race. Japanese soldiers killed a large number of noncombatants and engaged in looting and rape. Japanese buried Chinese, Korean alive during War II. If you were a Nazi prisoner of war you faced a 4% chance of not surviving the war; (by comparison) the death rate for Allied POWs held by the Japanese was nearly 30%.
Shinzo Abe has denied some of the atrocities and he has continually prayed at the Yasukuni Shrine, which includes convicted Class A war criminals in its honored war dead.
Jennie PC Chiang/江佩珍 07/10/13 美國
Agree with everything you said Tom, but unfortunately there are a lot of dupes around.


SCMP.com Account