Currently, the islands are under the control of Japan as a result of the 1969 Okinawa Reversion Treaty, which ceded control of the islands from the United States to Japan. The islands were under the control of the United States following World War II, and were used by the U.S. military for bomber plane training runs. In response to tensions between China and Japan over ownership of the islands, the U.S. government has maintained the position that both China and Japan should avoid conflict over possession of the islands and solve their dispute through peaceful negotiations.
China and Japan have historical claims to the islands. China incorporated the islands into its territory during the Ming Dynasty in the early 15th century. The Japanese seized the islands from China in 1895 when the Meiji government incorporated the islands into the Okinawa Prefecture. China and Japan each have legitimate claims to the islands which have not yet been resolved. Both countries, fueled by political nationalistic outrage, have stood reverently by their claims to the islands.
The Chinese have continually presented their claim to the islands through the United Nations Commission for the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), most recently in April 2011. China asserts that it has indisputable sovereignty over the islands and all oil reserves located near the islands. The Chinese claim to have maintained a historical record of China’s discovery of the islands from the year 1403, with a corresponding geographical description of the island chain.
Under China’s argument, the Japanese illegitimately took the islands by force when they conquered Taiwan in 1895. China further asserts that following the end of World War 2, the islands were supposed to be returned to China via Taiwan as part of the 1943 Cairo Agreement held between the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. The Chinese maintain that the U.S. military’s post-war occupation and ceding of the islands to Japan through the bilateral Okinawa Reversion Treaty was illegal, and the islands rightfully belong to China.
The Japanese counter that the islands were incorporated into Japan in 1895, after surveys indicated that they were uninhabited. Japanese officials further claim that the islands were never under continuing Chinese control. Japan maintains that the islands have been under continuous Japanese control since 1895, and that they are part of the Nansei Shoto Islands which are territorially Japanese. Japan also argues that China did not dispute Japan’s claim to the islands at the signing of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty that formally ended WW 2, and that prior to the discovery of potential energy resources around the islands, China did not seek to claim the islands.
Conflict over the islands has resulted in limited exchanges of fire between the Japanese and Chinese navies, instances of vessels from both nations’ navies provocatively playing “chicken” with each other, and Japanese submarines moving too deep into China’s maritime territory. Fishing vessels from China have operated near the islands contrary to Japan’s maritime Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and clashes over the placement of oil drilling equipment and tanker vessels authorized by either side of the dispute continue. The conflict between China and Japan is not limited to the two countries, as their disagreement directly impacts the regional strategy of the United States, their Pacific Asian neighbors, and the international community due to disruptions in trade that a South China Sea war would cause.
The United States is obligated by treaty to come to the defense of Japan, and Japan is arguably the most important ally of the U.S. in the Pacific Asia region. Officially, the Chinese government does not recognize the Okinawa Reversion Treaty and historically views the U.S. role in the dispute as biased and counter-productive. North Korea’s continuing nuclear weapons program and bellicose statements of intent to use its nuclear weapons, and China’s support for the North Korean government, has strengthened Japan’s argument for building up its military in anticipation of a potential regional war with China and North Korea.
As China and Japan both highly value these islands, the intensity of their dispute is of great concern to the nations of Pacific Asia and the international community. Nationalist fervor in both countries adds to the complexity of the situation. The dispute over the islands has become a “third rail” issue for Chinese and Japanese officials. In China, for example, scholars and “netizens” (slang for Internet Citizens) labeled Chinese politicians as traitors for promoting a settlement with Japan. During times of highest tension with Japan, the Chinese government censored the Internet to maintain political stability in the face of Chinese nationalistic furor against Japan.
Both sides view their claim to the islands and their potential resource wealth as valid and based upon historical accuracy. The governments of China and Japan, in the context of the complicated history of relations between the two countries, are attempting to “stand up” to one another. Japan sees China as attempting to re-establish an ancient patriarchal tribute system upon it, while China sees Japan as attempting to re-establish its empire in Pacific Asia.
In spite of these suspicions of each other’s aggressive nationalism, the governments of China and Japan express even stronger sentiment for the regional stability of Pacific Asia. China and Japan realize that they are economically co-dependent and that they would both lose a lot more than they would gain if they do not resolve their conflict peacefully. China is engaging positively with the member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
According to the October 17, 2012 “Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties of the South China Sea,” China and the ASEAN states will seek “…peace, stability, and economic growth” and desire a “peaceful and durable solution of differences and disputes among countries involved.” It is likely that in spite of their harsh rhetoric, China and Japan have long-term interest in the future stability of Pacific Asia. It is highly unlikely that large-scale conflict will occur in Asia due to the strong economic interdependence of the Pacific Asian countries.
Mike Bassett is the Senior Asia Analyst at 361 Security
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and should not be construed as reflecting the official position of 361 Security.