Referred to as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China, a small cluster of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea have been a serious source of contention in the region since the 1970s. The historical claims to this area that encompasses only seven square kilometers date back to the 14th century according to the Chinese claim, and the late 19th century via Japanese incorporation and later administration. Taiwan also lays claim to the island group and refers to them as the Diaoyutai Islands, though their stake has been less incisive. Located southwest of the Ryukyu Island chain of Japan, northeast of Taiwan, and southeast of China, the islands are important today because of nearby oil reserves, busy shipping lanes, and regional power projection. Outright control of the islands would signal a key strategic loss for the opposing side, and thus there have been many incursions both directly and indirectly to test the waters.
The debate over the islands is most importantly reflective of the greater battle for regional influence between China and Japan. In 2010, a Chinese fishing vessel’s skipper was detained by Japanese Coast Guard officials prompting a diplomatic crisis. After initially refusing to set the skipper free, China ceased exportation of rare earth minerals to Japan and Japan capitulated by releasing the sailor. The fiery incident was short-lived, but the escalated tensions persisted in the aftermath.
In 2012 the Japanese government further asserted its control over the islands via purchasing and nationalizing three of the islands from their private Japanese owner for over $16 million dollars. In response Beijing released a scathing criticism denouncing the move and reiterating their own claim. That year also saw a wave of official proclamations from high ranking officials on both sides noting the importance of how the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands were integral to the sovereignty of their countries.
The Japanese in 2012 and Chinese in 2014 both launched websites purporting their respective justifications for the reasoning behind their claims. According to the magazine The Diplomat, in early 2015 both countries were quietly posturing around the islands in a sign of military buildup, which included the construction of a new Chinese base that could potentially be used for greater military readiness. An official from the US Naval Institute concluded after analyzing the situation that China may perform a “short, sharp war” against Japan to snatch the islands quickly. Furthermore, nationalist rhetoric surrounding the claims has increased the stakes and brought greater attention in East Asia to the sparring factions.
President Obama in 2014 clarified the US stance supported the Japanese claim, declaring that the Senkakus are covered by the US-Japanese bilateral security treaty. While Japan has de facto administered the islands for decades, the Chinese claim contains more historical justification behind it. In a way the controversy is similar to how Beijing politically approaches Taiwan: it would undermine their authority to recognize anything other than the stance they have held on to for so long. Likewise, Japan sees the islands as a symbolic possession that they would be devastated to lose. Regardless of the justification behind the ownership or control of the islands, their significance comes because they are at the crux of Japanese and Chinese foreign policy goals.
In the time of a geopolitically rising China, the controversies over such islands as the Senkaku and similar areas, such as the Spratly Islands, are microcosms of how relations between China and its neighbors will play out. If China continues to become more aggressive, as it has in the past few years in response to Japanese saber-rattling and the positioning of resources around key shipping lanes, both its neighbors and the world at large should take note. As was seen by the Russian action in Crimea, there are definite benefits and consequences to flexing strength near strategic points. It should come as no surprise that the Senkaku Islands will continue to play a unique role in the South China Sea.