Sino-Japanese Tension Grows Over Island Dispute

Max Staloff

Sino-Japanese Dispute

Once again, tensions have risen between China and Japan relating to a territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands. The islands, called the Diaoyu Islands by China, have been a sensitive spot in Sino-Japanese relations in recent years.

The tensions were reignited when Japan reported on September 9th an unmanned aircraft flying in Japanese airspace around the Senkaku Islands in the East Asian Sea. The unmanned vehicle was not inherently recognizable as belonging to China, but the Japanese government has determined it to be an unmanned Chinese aircraft. In response to the Chinese incursion, reports state that on October 11th, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved defense plans that would allow Japanese aircrafts to shoot down foreign drones that intrude upon Japanese airspace. Tokyo’s response was widely seen as a threat to China, and a defense ministry spokesman from China warned that such an action by Japan would be seen as an “act of war” and Beijing would respond accordingly.

The two nations have increasingly flexed their muscles in a show of military “chicken”; Japan has scrambled its aircraft fighters over the islands multiple times in recent days. Tokyo reported intrusions of multiple Chinese Coast Guard vessels in Japanese waters near the islands.

Last summer, Chinese President Xi Jinping, when speaking with United States President Barack Obama, stated that restoring the islands to Chinese control was a “core interest” to the nation. Despite the increasing rhetoric related to the islands, it is unlikely that either nation will take economic or military action again the other. China and Japan – respectively the second and third biggest economies in the world – rely on one another for economic stability. Japan’s technology market relies heavily on Chinese markets to buy their products, and simultaneously, China’s export-driven economy requires Japanese technology when manufacturing many of its products to be exported. As a result, both economies would suffer if the sale of Japanese goods to China were obstructed.

Military action by China is even more unlikely; the United States has reaffirmed that The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between United States and Japan obligates them to come to the aid of Japan if they were attacked. Because China understands that the reclaiming the islands is not worth risking an all-out war with the United States, they will likely avoid any military action as a means to retake the islands.

The islands were claimed by Japan at the end of the 19th century and held by the nation until it came under the administration of the United States via the San Francisco Treaty at the end of World War II. The United States returned the islands to Japan in 1972 under the 1971 Okinawa Reversion Agreement in which the United States returned all lands taken after WWII back to Japan. Before this time, the islands were seen as having little practical use to either country. All of this changed in 1969, when the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) stated that large reserves of oil and gas could be found around the islands. With that report, China, Taiwan and Japan all sought to stake their claim in the territory. Today, the islands – eight in total – are still uninhabited and undeveloped.

The dispute over the islands is nothing new, and will likely flare out over time. Besides the desirability to hold the island for its potential oil supply, the island also stands as a symbol of the uneasy relationship between Tokyo and Beijing. For either nation to cede their claim to the island would be seen as a defeat at the hands of their biggest rival.

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