Tensions in Sino-Japanese Relations: The Senkaku Islands


Recently, the exacerbation of hostility in the East and South China Seas has attracted much attention. Disputes over the sovereignty of a group of tiny uninhabited islands and cliffs administered by Japan and called the Senkaku Islands periodically spoil relations between China and Japan. The recently increased presence of Chinese chips in the nearby waters of the Senkaku increases fears about possible clashes between the two countries.

So, on October 20, the 11th District Coast Guard Headquarters in Naha country (Okinawa, Japan) announced that 4 Chinese ships violated the territorial waters of Japan in the disputed Senkaku archipelago. According to public broadcaster NHK, this is the 30th violation of Japanese territorial waters by Chinese-flagged ships this year.

Although Japan denies the existence of a sovereignty dispute, the issue of Senkaku status has been and remains the source of many Sino-Japanese disputes.

Background: What is the dispute about?

The People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan and Japan disagree over the ownership of the Senkaku group of uninhabited islands. The PRC’s position is based on historical evidence supporting its claim that the islands were first discovered in 1372 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Thus, China claims that the islands have been “an integral part of Chinese territory since ancient times.”

The position defended by Japan, which currently has administrative control over the islands (the island has been under Japanese administration since 1895), is based on the acquisition of ownership through discovery and occupation. Japan insists that the islands were incorporated into the Japanese territory in 1895 on the basis of the “terra nullius” (no man’s land) principle. After the end of World War II, Japan argued that the islands, as part of the Ryukyu archipelago, fell under the temporary jurisdiction of the United States, and in the early 1970s, they were returned to Japan along with Okinawa and other neighboring islands.

In general, the territorial dispute did not attract media attention until the events of September 2012, when the Japanese government made an official decision to acquire the Senkaku Islands from private owners (the islands were leased to a private person in 1896). This statement led to a wave of anti-Japanese sentiment in China and led to an escalation of the conflict over the Senkaku Islands. Since September 2012, several incidents involving the navy on both sides have been recorded in the islands’ coastal territories.

Factors aggravating the dispute between Japan and China

The situation is complicated by the fact that each side categorically defends the ownership of the islands, accusing the other of violating international law and state sovereignty.

In addition to this, there are also a number of other factors that aggravate the situation around the Senkaku Islands and delay the resolution of the problem.

One of these factors is the defense treaty between the United States and Japan. The Senkaku Islands, falling under Article 5 of the Treaty on Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States, according to which the entire territory of Japan is protected by American troops in the event of an external threat, becomes a stumbling block in Japanese-Chinese relations.

On the other side, China is also taking retaliatory measures. Thus, on February 1, 2021, China adopted a new law in the field of maritime safety. This legislation allows Chinese Coast Guard ships to use weapons against foreign ships in the situation of the latter entering Chinese territorial waters, which in Beijing includes the waters around the Senkaku Islands.

Position of the USA and Russia

The US de facto supports Japan, which is clearly seen in the statements of the United States. For example, in May 2013, the US Department of Defence in the report “Military and Security Issues of 2013 related to the PRC” criticized China’s claims to the islands, stating that the PRC’s actions contradict international maritime law. On November 12, 2020, US president Joe Biden, before his inauguration, officially confirmed Washington’s recognition of the Senkaku Islands belonging to Japan and declared the US readiness to defend their sovereignty in the event of aggression by China. Moreover, in March of this year, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin agreed with their Japanese colleagues to counter any unilateral attempts by China to undermine Tokyo’s control over Senkaku.

As for Russia, it officially declares that it takes a neutral position concerning those territorial issues to which it is not a party. However, it is entirely possible that Russia, which also has territorial disputes with Japan, could support China to put pressure on Tokyo. For example, in June 2016, Russian and Chinese warships marched near the Senkaku Islands during joint drills, which was evaluated by observers as a sign of solidarity in anti-Japanese cooperation with China.

Is a direct confrontation possible?

China’s naval activation and its attempts to strengthen its positions in the East China Sea are perceived by Japan as a direct threat to its security. However, there is no need to talk about direct confrontation yet. The risk of unforeseen military clashes during such dangerous maneuvers remains high, but it is still temporary.

In turn, it is also important to emphasize that the islands have become a symbol of something more than just economic and legal interests. Here we are talking more about the geopolitical balance in the East China Sea, where the activation of regional powers has recently been observed.


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