They might not look like much, but the small collection of islands, just south of Okinawa, are some of the most troublesome landmasses in Asia. But, what are these small islands, and why are they so important to both China and Japan?
What are the Senkaku Islands?
The Senkaku (or Diaoya islands to China and Taiwan) are a group of uninhabited islands that have a total size of just under seven square kilometers. The islands don’t have much by way of entertainment; featuring just two large rocks, 952 blades of grass, and a sea lion, known as Kevin. To make matters worse, both Japan and China claim they own the islands. No one can decide on Kevin though.
Why are the islands so important?
Several years ago, the U.N. surveyed the islands and reported that the surrounding ocean potentially had large amounts of natural gas and oil deposits. The islands also have extremely potent fishing grounds surrounding them. Control of the islands would also result in control of a 40,000 km2 powerful economic zone. The islands sit right on the doorstep of two major powers, surrounded by some of the most important shipping lanes in the world. I also hear the views are kind of cool.
Why have they caused so much controversy?
With both sides claiming the islands as their own, and ramping up efforts to push their claim, the controversy begins to get a lot more messy. And not in the fun way.
On their own website, the Japanese government strongly assert that the Senkaku islands are an inherent territory of Japan, usually referencing their hand over after WWII. Whereas, China claims that their sovereignty of the islands goes back to ancient times, and that they were important fishing grounds administered by Taiwan.
The controversy comes in waves. Ex-Tokyo governor, Shintaro Ishihara, fanned the flames of the dispute by saying he would buy the islands himself. To stop the potential fallout from this, the Japanese government stepped in, and in 2012, purchased the remainder of the islands from a private seller. Needless to say, this bilateral action angered Beijing, resulting in huge swathes of anti-Japanese riots, and some Japanese workers being harmed. This in turn, promoted anti-Chinese protests across Japan. A BBC article argues that the islands are a dangerous catalyst for “[igniting] nationalist passions.” They are often the spark needed to light an already volatile powder keg.
Wanting to push their claim in a more kinetic manner, Chinese warships entered the waters surrounding the Senkaku islands, sent as part of a 400 strong flotilla into the region.
Beyond all this, China has recently unveiled plans to build two lighthouses on reefs that are near the island, effectively projecting their power to cover the islands. Meanwhile, Japan has said it will build a new satellite station just south of Senkaku.
The dispute is like a balloon; with each controversy more air is blown in, and soon it’ll explode, leaving a room full of sad children, and a clown questioning his life choices.
Just kidding. But all of this creates an ugly wedge between the two nations.
The “It’s complicated” status
While the islands remain in a geographic limbo, it’s impossible for either side to heal. From China’s perspective, the islands highlight a much greater battle; if they were to soften their stance on the Senkaku islands, then they would, in turn, be forced to back down on their other claims within the region. The same goes for Japan and their land disputes with Russia. Neither side is able to back down, as it could set a precedent.
Military expansion from both sides, in an effort to settle the island dispute, has been met with fears that the ultimate end to the conflict could be an aggressive one. China is increasing its military budget each year, and Japan recently expanded its military spending to include equipment designed to handle the dispute. This fueled accusations, mean notes to each other and other tensions.
The Japanese Prime Minister has also weighed in on the debate. He has said that the islands continue to sour relations between the two giants, because Beijing wants that to be the case. According to Abe they have a “deeply ingrained” desire (as quoted in a Guardian article) to argue with Japan, as it helps to fuel nationalism which allows Beijing to remain in control of its population.
Due to the location of the islands, their potential economic prosperity and being locked in a battle of pride and precedent (the lost Jane Austen sequel), the islands will forevermore continue to spawn a wedge between Japan and China.
Particularly for China, the islands represent an opportunity; if they can push Japan off their claim, then it would open the gates for them to wrangle control of the Asian hegemony from them. The Senkaku islands represent the first move in a very dangerous game.