Senkaku/Daioyu Islands: Significance, Challenges and Opportunities

ISSSP Reflections No. 26, June 11, 2015

Author: Ms. Meenakshi Viswanathan


Much has been discussed about Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s weeklong visit to United States of America in April 2015. Defence agreements were updated and signed and apologies for war time aggressions were demanded. But a key issue that cropped up was that of the Senkaku islands. A day before Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the White House, Secretary of the State John Kerry reaffirmed that a treaty that the United States and Japan signed in 1960 requires the former to defend the Senkaku Islands in case of an attack by China. According to Kerry, “Commitment to Japan’s security remains ironclad and covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku islands.

Why has the issue become so prominent in the recent years? Why is this issue proving to be a thorn in the China-Japan relations? What is so significant about these islands that all the big powers in the region have a vested interest in them?

Senkaku Islands: A Brief Overview

Senkaku Islands, Image Courtesy: Japan Times
Senkaku Islands, Image Courtesy: Japan Times

The Senkaku Islands, or the Daioyu Islands as the Chinese have named them, is a group of eight uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. They cover about 7 square km area and lie north-east of Taiwan, east of Chinese mainland and south-west of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture. The Senkakus are closer to Japan than to China, but they lie on the edge of China’s continental shelf, just as it plummets into the Okinawa Trough, 2,300 metres (7,500 feet) at its deepest. China insists the trough proves that the continental shelves of China and Japan are not connected, and that the trough “serves as a boundary between them”. Japan understands geography differently. According to them, the trough is a mere “incidental depression”. The Islands are presently under Japanese control.

Historically, the islands were used as maritime navigational markers and as such were never subjected to administrative control. The Japanese central government annexed the islands after the First Sino-Japanese war in 1895. After Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, America took control of the Okinawa prefecture along with the Senkaku islands. In 1972, the Islands were returned to Japan by the Americans in accordance with the Okinawa Reservation Treaty of 1971.

Why are the Islands so significant?

The Senkaku islands matter because they have great economic and strategic value. They are close to important shipping lines, offer rich fishing grounds having a large population of Bonito fish, and lie near potential oil and gas reserves. Their location also has strategic significance due to the rising competition between US and China for military primacy in the Asia-Pacific region.

Interestingly enough, the Chinese raised their ownership claim after the discovery of oil resources in the waters around the Senkaku islands in 1969. Since then the issue of the islands has been a constant source of irritation in the Sino-Japanese relations.

Image 2- Senkakus in Regional Map: Image Courtesy: Conflict Observer Project
Senkakus in Regional Map, Image Courtesy: Conflict Observer Project

But the issue reared its head in April 2012, when the outspoken Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said he would use public money to buy the islands from their private Japanese owners. In order to block the ultranationalist Governor Ishihara’s proactive plan, the Japanese reached a deal to buy three of the islands for US$26 million. Needless to say, China was less than pleased with this move. Beijing denounced Tokyo’s actions and took specific measures to demonstrate its claim over the islands such as sending maritime enforcement vessels to patrol the vicinity of the Senkaku islands. The Japanese move to purchase the islands resulted in anti-Japanese demonstrations across major Chinese cities. Though the Chinese government reigned in the protests and both the countries attempted talks to resolve the issue, the standoff continues. Maritime enforcement ships of both China and Japan frequently patrol the areas near the Senkaku islands and at times experience close encounters. In January 2013, a Chinese naval ship allegedly fixed its weapons-targeting radar on Japanese vessels in the vicinity of the Senkaku islands, and, on April 23, 2013, eight Chinese marine surveillance ships entered the 12-nautical-mile territorial zone off the Senkaku Islands, further escalating regional tensions.

In December 2014, reports emerged about the Chinese building a large military base on the Nanji islands to improve China’s readiness to respond to a potential military crisis and strengthen its surveillance over the air defence identification zone it declared in the East China Sea in November 2013. Satellite imagery analysis by IHS Jane’s released on January 22, 2015 confirms that China is indeed building a military base on islands near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Japan, meanwhile, is not standing still either. In April, Tokyo announced measures to strengthen its defence and surveillance capabilities with a troop presence and military radar station in Yonaguni, 150 km (93 miles) from the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

The American Factor

A potential military standoff between China and Japan cannot be contemplated without factoring in the American variable.

It is not far off the mark to say that Japan’s Defence policy following 1971 was evolved in a way that made Japan highly dependent on its alliance with US. The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan was first signed in 1952 following the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco. It was amended later in 1960 to provide Japan with a more equal footing. The treaty established that any attack against Japan or the United States perpetrated within Japanese territorial administration would be dangerous to the respective countries’ own peace and safety. It requires both countries to mitigate common dangers.

In 2012, a US diplomat stated that the Senkaku island dispute clearly falls under the security treaty obliging United States to come to Japan’s aid if it is attacked. And in May 2015, John Kerry once again reaffirmed that United States would come to Japan’s aid. Putting treaties commitments aside, an important question to ponder over is whether the US will come to Japan’s aid and risk a direct confrontation with China over the Senkakus.

Hypothetically speaking, if a conflict were to erupt between Japan and China, it would be hard to predict the American response. Even if the US was bound by the security treaty with Japan, the fact of the matter remains that the American economy is largely dependent on the People’s Republic of China. If China and Japan engage in a dispute over the Senkakus the possibility – even if quite remote – of the US prioritizing conflict resolution over militarily backing Japan is a possibilty that the Japanese cannot afford to ignore.

Furthermore, given the nature of the Sino-Japanese economic ties, any dispute with China would have a negative impact on the Japanese economy. Therefore, can Japan actually ill-afford to engage in a war with China? Even though the Abe Government is attempting to make changes to its peaceful constitution, it still is not ‘battle ready.’

China, the third player in the game, would still be reluctant to start a war over the issue of the Senkaku islands since its military capabilities still cannot hope to match the US, which might come to the aid of Japan. It is here that the continuous signalling of the American resolve as recently reiterated by the American Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter at the 2015 IISS Shangri La Dialogue becomes significant. As things stand, the three countries are locked in a situation of mutual stalemate interspersed with mutual dependence and competing interests.

Senkaku islands: An uncertain future

In the end, it all comes down to China and Japan’s scramble for oil resources and China’s irrepressible need to flex its muscles in the region. Nationalist sentiments of both the Chinese and Japanese public are forcing the leaders to maintain a tough stand instead of negotiating the dispute. But it is not a problem that has no solution. But it is not an intractable problem without any solution. Even at this juncture when both China and Japan are engaged in a quiet military build-up, there remains a scope for negotiation. While China generally employs strong arm tactics, it is eager to maintain the image of ‘peaceful rise’. Japan too is keen on resolving the dispute through peaceful means. A brief period of calming tensions is required before either country can engage in talks about the issue of Senkaku/Daioyu islands. Though immediate solutions are not possible, exchanging views on the issue in a candid manner thereby signalling to the ‘other’ one’s interests and intensions is a step in the right direction.

Despite competing interests, could Japan and China consider joint exploration and exploitation of the potential reserves? Would that be a sensible strategy that the two countries could adopt? The choices before the countries and their leaders are very clear. The future will be shaped by the choices they make now.

About the Author

Meenakshi Viswanathan is pursuing her Masters in International Studies at the Stella Maris College, Chennai. This article was written during her Summer Internship at the International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP), NIAS, Bangalore.

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2 thoughts on “Senkaku/Daioyu Islands: Significance, Challenges and Opportunities

  • K. Subramanian

    I happened to see this article only now . I am associated with the Chennai Center for China Studies. I have therefore a keen interest on CHINA-JAPAN issues. I found Ms Meenakshi’s article on the dispute over Senkaku island to be valuable. It provides clearly the factual background to the dispute and where it stands. As she says, the US is is unlikely to risk its economy (its massive dependence on China) over some rocks in the East China sea even if Japan is emotionally attached to them, even if the claim is historically questionable. For a graduate student the article is commendable.

  • P K Ghosh

    The article by Ms. Meenakshi Viswanathan is pretty good for a graduate student. The analysis of the likely US actions in the event of a conflict is rational and well made.
    However I would suggest that the author explores the stand of Taiwan in the conflcit. Afterall the initial claim was made by KMT and Taiwan . In any case the Taiwanese posture is very nuanced since PRC often prefers to let Taiwan take the lead in actions on Diyaou/ Diyaoutan/ Senkakau and the issue becomes complicated since Japan and Taiwan share a close relationship.
    The historical documents presented by China (PRC) and Taiwan support their stand on the issue while Japan refuses to present any documents at all stating that Senkakau is un- disputed territory.
    I am aware since I have been inspecting such documents and tracking the issue closely as part of my research.
    Watch out for further claims on the Rikyu chain !

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