Senkaku Diaoyu

Once Again, Natural Resource Control is the Root of Conflict
China Japan oil

Senkaku/Diaoyu Island Dispute Threatens Amiability of Sino-Japanese Relations

International conflicts seem to fall into two categories -- conflicts over natural resource control, and conflicts that seem to deal with something else but are really over natural resource control.

This article is reprinted here with permission from the Power and Interest News Report.

In late March 2004, a group of seven mainland Chinese activists landed on one of the disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands in an effort to solidify China's claim to the small island chain, triggering the latest in a growing trend of brief spats between Tokyo, Beijing, and, to a lesser extent, Taipei. This was the first successful attempt by Chinese citizens to land on the islands, and occurred only a couple months after one attempt failed when Japanese coast guard vessels purportedly opened fire with water cannons on Chinese ships approaching the islands.

Japan's coast guard arrested the activists, but stopped short of pressing criminal charges and instead sent them back to China amid warnings coming out of Beijing to refrain from any drastic action. As this latest event highlights, in the face of an emergent China and a remilitarizing Japan, these islands stand to become a crucial indicator on how far either government will go to demonstrate its regional dominance.

The island chain accounts for only 20 square kilometers of land made up of the five islands and three rock outcroppings, yet it is far from an inconsequential no-man's land. Located 170 kilometers northeast of Taipei and 410 kilometers west of Okinawa, this island chain has been the center of a growing territorial dispute between China, Taiwan, and Japan since the late 1960s, when a U.N. survey suggested oil may be found in the continental shelf atop which these islands sit.

While no development of oil resources under the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands is being seriously pursued at present, each party involved is eager to secure sovereignty over the islands as doing so will ensure tens of thousands of square kilometers of exclusive economic zone in the surrounding waters.

Aside from the promise of oil, which to China and Japan (as the top two importers of foreign oil in Asia) is immensely important, there is the issue of face. All sides involved stand strong to their claims over the islands. To make its case, Beijing (as well as Taipei) points to ancient Chinese documentation of the islands dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), as well as documentation suggesting the islands were incorporated into Ming and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasty maritime defenses. Japan says it declared the islands terra nullius -- land that no sovereign state had yet claimed, purportedly at around the same time a Japanese citizen began to invest in developing the islands.

Japan formally claimed the islands in 1895, the same year Japan gained control over Taiwan and other surrounding islands as the result of a war with China. Yet the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands were not renounced in the 1951 San Francisco Treaty when Japan renounced its claim over Taiwan and all other islands associated with Taiwan, which Japan cites as a clear indication that it has sovereignty over the islands. The treaty in question, however, lacks any finality on the issue because neither China nor Taiwan was a signing party. In all, Tokyo has maintained control over the islands for the better part of the past hundred years, during and before WWII as an axis power, and after 1971 as part of the returned Okinawa territories.

For several decades the issue was put on the backburner as the states involved in the dispute had other more pressing concerns. Indeed, China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping himself commented on the situation in a speech back in 1985 saying "the question of Diaoyu Island…could be set aside for the moment; probably the next generation would be cleverer than we and would find a practical solution."

It was only in 1996 that the issue was reignited when Tokyo reaffirmed its claim over the island chain. Beijing responded with a bout of rhetoric, and redirected military flights closer to Japanese airspace. This in turn inspired the Japan Youth Association, a right wing nationalistic civilian organization, to set up a makeshift lighthouse on one of the disputed islands; and in true tit for tat spirit, boatloads of Taiwanese and Hong Kongese civilians made their way to the islands to counter the actions of impressionable Japanese youth. This trend has continued until today, although the March landing marked the first time mainland Chinese were directly involved (successfully) as civilian activists.

As China's influence in the area rises, this dispute is likely to show up again and again. Even as growing economic relations are further integrating the economies of Northeast Asia, the mutual suspicion between China and Japan seems to be growing as well. China finds itself in a bit of a difficult position, however; while Beijing would like to see the islands wrestled from Japanese hands, this does not appear immediately achievable.

Geography seems to lend credence to the case that the islands are more a part of Taiwan than Okinawa (as they are closer to Taiwan, and are separated from Okinawa by a deep ocean trench), yet this same reasoning dictates that China's claim to these islands is largely dependent on China's claim to Taiwan. Thus, projecting any force militarily or otherwise to secure Beijing's claim over the small island chain would mean risking the disruption of the status quo of a very sensitive area, and any such actions are not likely to take place before China comes to terms with Taiwan.

Yet while Beijing may be limited from simply taking the islands militarily (for the Japanese navy is not inconsequential, and the U.S. -- although wishing to avoid getting involved in the dispute -- has affirmed that it would protect the islands from any military incursions), Chinese citizens may well take up the slack. The Chinese Civilian Association for Safeguarding the Diaoyu Islands has recently applied to lease the islands for tourism development, a move to offset Japan's "leasing" of the islands from a private citizen.

In the end, however, it seems that Deng Xiaoping's comment still holds some sway with both Beijing and Tokyo, as leaders of both countries have aimed to convince their nationals to cancel any planned patriotic voyages to the islands. Saving face, and undeveloped oil reserves, can wait until taking up the issue doesn't threaten to severely damage economic relations.

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This report was drafted by Charles K. Smith. Copyright 2004 by PINR. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of inquiries@pinr.com.

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