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Senkaku Island Dispute: A Brief Guide

Ever heard of the Senkaku Island dispute? Here's what you should know.

By 4 min read 5

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.

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  • Dale Goodwin says:

    First of all, the islands are claimed by China, Japan, and Taiwan. It is just that Taiwan doesn’t make as big a deal of it as China. Secondly, China had zero interest in the islands until the natural gas deposits were discovered. The Chinese claim historical sovereignty is typical with other disputes China has with the rest of its neighbors as well. Unfortunately for them, they don’t have any verifiable evidence of that (as I understand it) and their claims do not hold up in international court (but the Chinese really don’t care about that anyway).

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      Hi Dale. Thank you for your comment. I put that Taiwan claimed them also, but you’re correct. Their claim and hand in the dispute is a lot less of a vocal one. And yes; it seems that China has only kicked up a fuss since the 1970s after the UN survey in 1968 around the area. It’s interesting that prior to this, according to the Japanese government, there had been no claims. The Chinese evidence is kind of difficult to pin down (actually, that’s the case with all the countries in this – it’s purposely opaque…), but the primary reason seems to be that a Chinese fishing boat seemed to have recorded the islands back in the 14th Century, among other claims.

  • Daniel says:

    This “article” does not even begin to delve into the key points. Firstly, it will be helpful if you got the spelling right. Its Diaoyu in Mandarin. Secondly you fail to mention the following:

    On December 1, 1943, China, the US and the UK issued the Cairo Declaration, which stated in explicit terms that the Three Great Allies were fighting this war to “restrain and punish the aggression of Japan” and required that “all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and Pescadores” shall be restored to the Chinese side.

    According to international law, the Diaoyu Islands and their affiliated islands have belonged to China since then. On July 26, 1945, the eve of the victory of the World Anti-Fascist War, China, the US and the UK issued the Potsdam Proclamation to reaffirm that

    “the terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out.”

    The Cairo Declaration used “stolen,” a word rarely seen in international legal instruments, and it was reaffirmed by the Potsdam Proclamation. This clearly defines the illegal nature of Japan’s aggression and the stealing of Chinese territory, and makes it clear to the whole world that China is the owner and Japan is the thief.

    Some political figures in Japan question the authority and legitimacy of the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Proclamation. It is arrogant, if not ignorant, and even hysterical to a certain extent.

    The Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Proclamation are important outcomes of the victory of the World Anti-Fascist War, which lay the legal foundation for the postwar international order. They are of universally undoubted authority and legitimacy. The Japanese side stirred up tension when “purchasing and nationalizing islands,” and further denied the outcomes of the victory of the World Anti-Fascist War. It constitutes a threat to the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region.

    • Alex Sturmey says:

      Hi Daniel, thanks for your comment. Guess I must have missed that on my spell check, so I’ll try to get the changed thanks for pointing that out. Sorry you felt that I failed to mention some key points about the island. As with most articles, I’m restricted to a word limit, and deciding what makes the cut is a difficult matter. In trying to provide a brief overview (in the strongest definition), I wasn’t really able to delve into some of the more expansive areas you’ve put out in your comment there.

      Just to act as Devil’s advocate, as I think it’s an interesting topic of discussion, China and Taiwan haven’t actually been making claims (at least with validity on the international stage) since the 1970s. In fact, the islands were even clearly stated as being under US administration (Article 3) of the San Francisco Peace Agreement, and were even handed -back- to Japan when the US finally pulled out of the country.

      A good article written by the Economist goes into some of the historical nature of the dispute, which your comment also covers in depth: http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/12/economist-explains-1

      • Daniel says:

        Thanks for the reply. The US basically “forgot” to return the islands to China when Taiwan was returned. The islands were placed under US administration. It was latter then “handled to Japan” in the SF peace agreement which you mentioned to which China was EXCLUDED. China wasn’t even at the table.

        And ever since then, the western world would claim those islands as belonging to Japan. That’s essentially what happened. See it doesn’t take that many words. You should at least mention the fact the China was excluded from the SF negotiations even though the agenda was about China’s territory!

        Also you should do your research and not just bring stuff together from the main stream media. History is irrefutable. But media tries to re-write history.

        The word limit sounds more like an excuse. I’m sure with your writing skills you can put a balanced view in the same number of words.



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