Island Grabbing in the East China Sea

Why China, Japan and Taiwan are clashing over small, uninhabited islets.

Two of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.Northeast of Taiwan, east of China and west of Japan’s Ryukyu islands lie a few small pieces of land almost too small to be called islands. But Diaoyu (in Chinese) and Senkaku (in Japanese), a few uninhabited islets, are the focus of a potentially explosive conflict.

This week Chinese surveillance ships arrived to patrol the area around the islands. Politicians in Japan are exploiting the dispute, while China has seen anti-Japanese demonstrations and boycotts of Japanese products. There have been incidents over the islands in the past, but the situation appears to be worsening.

The islands are uninhabited, and the land comprising them is insignificant. So why are they the cause of conflict? They afford claim to undersea resources, including possibly huge deposits of oil, to whoever owns them.

The claimants are Japan, China and Taiwan. All appear to have a reasonable case for ownership.

The issue is complicated by the fact that sea and island claims under current international law are more difficult to resolve than land claims. The 1984 UN Conference on the Law of the Sea made the former even trickier by giving full or partial jurisdiction to a nation’s sea territory extending two hundred nautical miles from its shores. That created overlapping claims.

A provision of the UN agreements, an “exclusive economic zone” also figures into sea claims and makes them even more complicated. It states that in the case of overlap the nations involved need to define their maritime borders.

The default claim goes to the nearest state. The islets lie fewer than two hundred nautical miles from China and Japan, depending on how the measurements are done, and are even closer to Taiwan. Yet Taiwan is militarily the weakest of the three disputants.

Today, the disputants have more reason to push their claims aggressively. There are other island and territorial disputes in the region that have become heated in recent months, and the conflict involves deeper issues for all three.

Japan is divided socially and politically by a dispute over energy due to the nuclear accident in Fukushima in the spring of 2011. If Tokyo decides against nuclear power, it will need to import a lot more oil, making it more vulnerable. Meanwhile, Japan has grown increasingly fearful and antagonistic toward a rising China. Recent polls suggest most Japanese think highly of their military (a big change from the recent past), and they do not like or trust China (also a change).

China’s quickly growing economy has made it more dependent on imported energy, most of which comes from the Middle East and Africa. The U.S. Navy protects its merchant ships, and there is more tension between China and the United States. Thus, China would prefer a closer source of oil.

Taiwan also needs the oil. Moreover, Taipei is worried that Washington’s support of Taiwan is weakening. The Obama administration has hinted that it might favor such a policy. Supporters and pro-Obama think tanks have suggested that this would end a major source of friction with China.

Others point out that the United States is deeply in debt to China and still needs money—and thus cannot afford to alienate China. Plus the U.S. military is in decline and ultimately cannot maintain its role as Taiwan’s protector. The alternative to acquiescing to China’s position is for Washington to refurbish its alliances in Asia and get help to balance China’s rise. Taiwan wants to show it is important and would like to play a part in this “Asian pivot.”

Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou (a graduate of Harvard Law School and a reputed scholar of international law) has cited recently a heretofore little-known agreement that gives Taiwan a stronger claim to the islands. Ma’s more salient point is that the claimants should try to reach an understanding that puts aside the territorial claims and focuses on extracting the precious resources.

Indeed, it appears futile to try to resolve the sovereignty issue. There are too many conflicting arguments and counterarguments using history, international law, treaties and geography. For example, China claims the islands based on early contacts and historical records. It discovered the islands, named them and made claim to them. Japan argues that China made no claim of sovereignty (it was not then a practice in China) and argues it is the first claimant.

However, some Japanese records and published reports suggest that Japan acknowledged China’s early claim. Japan still contends it obtained the islands in 1895 in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the Sino-Japanese War. The islands were seen as part of the legal transfer of Taiwan to Japan, after which Okinawa Prefecture administered the islands.

At the close of World War II, under the Cairo and Potsdam proclamations, Japan was not allowed to keep any of the territory it took from China. Japan did not protest, though it obviously could not—having just lost the war. The San Francisco Peace Treaty formalized this arrangement. Thus the islands should have been transferred to the Republic of China.

But after World War II, the United States controlled the islands as part of its governance over the Ryukyu Islands, whose ownership was yet to be determined. The U.S. Navy rented the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands for target practice from a Japanese individual that held a deed to them. When the United States returned the Ryukyus to Japan in 1972, the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands were included.

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