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Background Brief: Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Dispute: History, Nationalism and International Law Carlyle A. Thayer September 24, 2012

[client name deleted] 1-Anti-Japanese protests have been seen in Hong Kong and also Taiwanese and Chinese protestors joined together in a mutual protest in New York last week over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. What is your take on this? Also, can this issue bring together Hong Kong Chinese and Taiwanese that have historically been anti-Beijing? ANSWER: There are many sources of Chinese nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment is among the most virulent. The greater Chinese community is very diverse. Not all Hong Kong residents are anti-Beijing, pro-Beijing citizens are likely to support Beijing’s territorial claims. There is a pro-Japan sentiment in Taiwan among a plurality of the population. But there is also a traditional nationalism among the old guard. Overseas Taiwanese may be motivated by glories of China’s past. They would prefer to see Taiwan have a more independent stance internationally. A momentary flare up over territorial disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu is not sufficient to bring these diverse communities together in a long-lasting coalition. 2-Japan argues that it surveyed the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the late 19th century and found them to be Terra nullius (Latin: no man's land); subsequently China acquiesced to Japanese sovereignty until the 1970s when the islands were said to be rich in oil and gas reserves. In light of this fact, how can China now claim the islands? Isn’t the real heart of the matter hydrocarbons? ANSWER: Japan annexed the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in 1895 following a war with Imperial China. They fell into American hands after the Second World War as the occupying power and reverted back to Japan in 1972. There is no record I am aware of that China (either Nationalist or Communist) contested American’s occupation of Japan and control over the Senkakus. China’s complaints arose in 1971 when it was clear the U.S. intended to return them to Japan. In a legal sense the key factor is continual occupation and effective administration. The extent of hydrocarbons is unknown. Potential energy resources are one aspect. The Senkaku/Diaoyu form part of an island chain blocking China’s access to the Western Pacific. They are located near shipping lanes. Fisheries are also important.

2 3-How much of China’s anger over this issue can be traced back to Japanese imperialism in the 1930s and 40s? Is Beijing using this to stoke anti-Japanese sentiment? ANSWER: Japanese imperialism of the 1930s is one of the explanations and certainly the coincident of the the Mudken incident with the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands added fuel to the fire. Beijing tolerated the anti-Japanese protests but when they turned violent and threatened to get out of control, the authorities curtailed them. The key issue is historic Chinese claims to the Diaoyu islands and grievances against Japan for having annexed them when China was weak. 4-Do you think Japan’s purchasing of the three islands earlier this month (knowing and realizing how Beijing would react) is an act to save face over an 2010 incident in the area? At that time a Chinese trawler collided with two Japanese patrol ships in the direct vicinity of the disputed islands but then Japanese authorities’ suddenly released the Chinese captain after a 17-day arrest and detention. It was interpreted by some as a ‘humiliating retreat' for Japan and seen in the context of an increasingly ‘weak’ Japan. ANSWER: I do not see any connection between the events of 2010 and the present. In 2010 Japan changed policy and actually detained the Chinese skipper. In the past he would have been deported relatively swiftly. The central government acted to forestall a move by the mayor of Tokyo whose plans to develop the islands would have caused even more fury on the mainland. The key to the skipper’s release was the imposition by China of economic sanctions, such as the suspension of exports of rare earths to Japan. Japan apparently did not anticipate this reaction. 5-What mechanisms can be put into place to handle such territorial disputes? Particularly in light of the fact that The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea doesn’t appear to be working due to competing claims and the fact that it calls for parties with conflicting claims to work out disagreements among themselves. ANSWER: UNCLOS was not designed to solve sovereignty disputes over territory. UNCLOS is a vehicle for resolving disputes over sovereign jurisdiction when maritime zones overlap. The only realistic mechanism is for China and Japan to reach a diplomatic understanding not to escalate their dispute after the current contretemps cool down. In the past the two sides worked out a joint development scheme to develop the resources in the disputed area. A joint authority could be appointed to manage resource exploitation. 6-Could this turn into a shooting war? If so, which side has the advantage, economically, militarily? ANSWER: the likelihood of a shooting war is very low. China has so far dispatched unarmed China Marine Surveillance vessels. Japan has deployed its Coast Guard. Both have kept their armed forces out of the disputed area. Both sides have a lot to lose economically if a shooting war erupted. A conflict would not only affect bilateral two-way trade and investment, but also their maritime trade, including the importation of oil. A shooting war could escalate and draw in the United States. China is not hankering for a confrontation with the U.S. Navy.


Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Dispute,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, September 24, 2012. Thayer Consultancy Background Briefs are archived and may be accessed at:

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