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The uninhabited Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Photo: Kyodo

Diaoyus dispute casts shadow over China-Japan relations 50 years after normalisation

  • Beijing claims ownership of uninhabited East China Sea islets that are under Japanese control
  • Tokyo says 332 Chinese vessels entered Japan’s ‘territorial waters’ around islands in past decade

The territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands and Beijing’s increased patrols in the area are set to add to tensions in China-Japan relations, experts say.

However, economic cooperation might help circumvent sensitive political issues and reduce hostilities between the two countries, one added.

The comments came at a time when the two nations are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic ties. However, their thorniest maritime dispute – over the Diaoyus, which are known as the Senkakus in Japan – has yet to be resolved.

Diaoyu Islands: Japan’s nationalisation of islets stirs decade of China tension

Beijing claims ownership of the uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, but they are under Japanese control and the Japanese government nationalised them 10 years ago.

The nationalisation of the islands sparked intense criticism from Beijing, and marked the beginning of a 10-year chill in bilateral relations. In that time, 332 Chinese vessels entered Japan’s “territorial waters” around the islands, according to the Japanese government.


Diaoyu-Senkaku islands spat deepens as Japan warns China over coastguard ships in East China Sea

Diaoyu-Senkaku islands spat deepens as Japan warns China over coastguard ships in East China Sea

While Chinese media framed the patrols as a way to enhance China’s presence in the area, Japan viewed them as unfriendly moves challenging Tokyo’s control.


Chen Gang, a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, said China sent coastguard ships to showcase its sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands and adjacent waters as China regarded the nationalisation of the islands as a change in the status quo.

Boat used by Hong Kong activists in voyage to Diaoyu Islands a decade ago sinks

“From China’s perspective, Japan’s nationalisation move infringed China’s sovereignty and exacerbated the friction between the two countries over the Diaoyus,” he said. “ Dispatching coastguard ships also signals China’s defiance over Japan’s nationalisation decision.”

Masatoshi Murakami, an associate professor specialising in international relations at Kogakkan University in Japan, said sending vessels into Japanese waters indicated that China intended to change the status quo unilaterally and had led to the deterioration in bilateral relations.

“Combined with action taken around the Senkaku Islands, China’s military assertiveness around Taiwan has convinced the world of Beijing’s intention to challenge the status quo,” he said.

The Chinese military conducted multiple military drills in waters around Taiwan last month in response to a visit to the island by Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives. Beijing sees Taiwan as part of China and has never ruled out the use of force to take control of it.

Murakami said China should stop sending vessels to the waters around the islands as a sign of friendship to improve bilateral relations.


But Chen said that such an expectation was not realistic.

Japan says Chinese frigate chased Russian warship away from Diaoyu Islands

“It’s difficult for the two countries to amend political relations in the near future, but there is potential for them to enhance economic and trade ties in the framework of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP),” he said. “Japan can also help China on its application for membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).”

The RCEP, which came into force at the start of this year, is designed to reduce tariffs on cross-border trade among member states. It is the first free trade agreement to include both China and Japan.


CPTPP could become game changer and supplant 'out-of-date' WTO, after mainland China, Taiwan apply

CPTPP could become game changer and supplant 'out-of-date' WTO, after mainland China, Taiwan apply

China announced last year that it would apply to join the 11-country CPTPP, but it will not be easy for Beijing to get accepted as it has to get the approval of all member countries, including Japan and Australia, which have had strained ties with Beijing for years.


“Economic interactions cannot fundamentally solve political and territorial disputes, but at least they can reduce hostility and tension to some degree,” Chen said, adding that the two countries should make bilateral negotiations on the maritime dispute a regular event and, if possible, come up with a code of conduct covering the area.