Diaoyu Islands
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Minamikojima (front), Kitakojima (middle right) and Uotsuri (background) are the tiny islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. Photo: AP

Explainer | Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute

  • The island chain, claimed by China, Taiwan and Japan, is made up of five islets and three barren rocks covering an area of 7 square kilometres
The Diaoyu archipelago (known as the Senkakus in Japanese) is an uninhabited chain of islands in the East China Sea claimed by China, Taiwan and Japan.
A long-standing controversy over the islands’ ownership has periodically soured relations between China and Japan. In recent years, the increased presence of Japanese and Chinese vessels in nearby waters has heightened concerns about possible clashes between the two countries.

What is the dispute about?

The Japanese-administered island chain, formed by five islets and three barren rocks, covers an area of 7 square km. It is located about 200km southwest of Japan’s Okinawa island and a similar distance northeast of Taiwan.

Japan annexed the archipelago following China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese war from 1894 to 1895. Yet the islands were left out of the Treaty of San Francisco at the end of the second world war that returned to China most of the territories previously occupied by Japan.

Under the terms of Japan’s surrender, the island chain was controlled by the US until 1971, when it was returned to Japan along with Okinawa and other surrounding islands.

Two years earlier, a report highlighting the potential for oil reserves in the area prompted China to reassert its territorial claims over the islands. Japan does not recognise China’s claims nor the existence of a dispute over the islands’ sovereignty.

Why are they so coveted?

The United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East pointed out in 1969 that the region between Taiwan and Japan “appears to have great promise as a future oil province of the world”. Japan and China are among the world’s top importers of fossil fuels.

Abundant fishing resources can be found nearby, as can important shipping lanes used by Japan, South Korea and China for energy imports.

The islands have also become a focal point of the broader rivalry between the two countries.

In Japan, conservatives led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believe the country has made amends for its wartime imperialism and wish to rewrite the country’s “pacifist” constitution.

Chinese leaders, meanwhile, have been known to deploy anti-Japanese rhetoric and are increasingly assertive in their territorial claims.

Activists carry Chinese and Taiwanese flags as they landed on Uotsuri Island. Photo: AP

What have been the most recent developments?

In 2012, the Japanese government bought three of the islands, which had been sold to a family of local entrepreneurs in 1932, back from their private owners. Tokyo claimed the move was designed to ease tensions, but the acquisition outraged Beijing.

Demonstrations against Japan spread across mainland China after the sale, targeting Japanese products and outlets. Thousands of protesters laid siege to the Japanese embassy in Beijing, throwing bottles and rocks. Chinese coastguard vessels later increased their presence in waters near the islands, sometimes prompting Japan to scramble fighter jets in response.

In 2013, China created an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea, encompassing the disputed archipelago, within which commercial aircraft are required to notify Beijing of their movements. This overlapped with Japan’s own identification zone.

The US has also reiterated on several occasions that the contested territory is included in the bilateral security treaty between it and Japan – and that US forces would protect the islands if necessary.

Is there any resolution in sight?

After years of strained diplomatic relations, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to make a “new start” on bilateral ties in November 2017.

In May 2018, Li Keqiang became the first Chinese premier to visit Japan in eight years. During his visit, the two countries agreed to establish a security hotline to defuse any future maritime confrontations.

In October 2018, Abe visited Beijing – the first official visit by a Japanese leader in seven years. Despite this apparent warming of ties, no clear resolution has been reached. The situation is further complicated by the US-Japan defence treaty.

Over two weeks beginning in October 2018, Washington and Tokyo staged their biggest ever war games throughout Japan and its surrounding waters, amid reports the allies were preparing a combined military response to any possible future Chinese incursions of the disputed islands.