During the previous months, Japan has made some positive changes in its attitude towards China concerning the issue of the disputed islands of Senkaku/Diaoyu , in an attempt to solve territorial disputes at sea.
It has been reported that Japan may accept the existence of the dispute, but it will still support that these islands are indeed part of Japanese territory.
There were talks about an official meeting between the Presidents of the two countries- Abe and Xi- for the first time at the APEC summit that will be taking place next month, which would be a turning point in the Sino-Japanese relations. This meeting would also play a major role in reversing the “cold politics” between the two countries and may lead to a peaceful resolution of the dispute in the future; but we should not raise our hopes too high, as the two leaders have been known to make harsh and rash statements in the past.
Why are these islands so significant for China and Japan and why has their dispute not been solved? These questions raise significant issues that characterize the East Asian Region.
At the center of the dispute are eight uninhabited islands and rocks in the East China Sea, the Chinese Diaoyu 钓鱼 or the Japanese Senkaku 尖閣諸島. They are found at the North-East of Taiwan, East of mainland China and South-West of Okinawa. The reason why they place such an important role is because they find themselves in a very geostrategic position, close to shipping lanes and fishing grounds as well as being near oil and gas reserves. Even though the disputed islands are a priority in each countries’ agendas, it has yet to be resolved and remains a threat to regional security.
The root cause of the dispute is that both countries agree to disagree. Japan claims that it has monitored the islands for 10 years in the 19th century and established that they were uninhabited. In addition, Japan also insists that the islands have always been an integral part of Japanese territory, specifically part of the Nansei Shoto Islands. After the Second World
War they were under US trusteeship and Japan received them again in 1971 under the Okinawa reversion deal.
However, China firmly supports that they have been an inseparable part of the Chinese territory since ancient times and that they should have been returned to China in the San Francisco Treaty, along with Taiwan. It is worth mentioning that the Chinese Government and the Taiwanese authorities did not question the sovereignty of the islands, until they were informed by a research- conducted by the United Nations- that potential oil sources exist in the area.
For some time there was little or no tension and the dispute was not in the spotlight. It was 2012 when things changed and the Japanese government, in an attempt to avoid the purchase of the islands by the right-wing Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara with public money, bought three of the controversial islands. At the same time, China, enraged by those actions, cancelled the ceremonies of the 40th anniversary of the restored diplomatic relations between the two countries.
In 2013 a radar lock was put on a Japanese ship by a Chinese frigate in East China Sea, which then lead to more tensions. Last year China was given a warning by Japan that the new air-defense identification zone, which was introduced by China and implies that any aircraft in this region should act accordingly to the rules set by Beijing, could lead to unforeseen incidents. Last but not least, activists on both sides are doing little to help reach a solution, and their actions are only making the situation is escalate.
A consequence of this ongoing dispute is that East China Sea has become home to an increasing military presence. China’s claims on Taiwan, the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, the threat by North Korea and the general instability in the region play key roles in this dangerous game that is taking place in the area.
It is important to highlight that these issues should have been discussed directly by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jingping. Even discussing the issue would be a positive step towards reaching a compromise and finding a plausible solution on the disputed islands of Senkaku/Diaoyu, which could restore Sino-Japanese relations, to some extent.