In the middle of the East China Sea lies a smattering of five little islands, plus a small handful of barren rocks. The islands are not habitable, nor are they particularly rich in biodiversity or natural resources. There are probably thousands of islands in the world that are far more valuable.
But it’s what these islands stand for — and, potentially, stand on — that have made them the center of a decades long controversy between China and Japan, a controversy that is now boiling over and forcing the U.S. to draw lines in the diplomatic sand.
In recent months, the dispute over the islands — called the Senkaku by Japan and the Diaoyu by China — has reached historically tense levels. Both nations have deployed ships and aircraft to patrol the waters, and both countries have swooned with nationalist protests and rhetoric.
A look back at how this dispute hit a tipping point reveals that the U.S. has been involved from the very beginning, and will become entrenched even deeper as Japan and China go tit for tat in a diplomatic showdown.
Of course it’s about oil
The current island controversy is more a conflict over energy potential than anything else.
Japan wrested the Senkaku Islands from China after the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, as The New York Times explains. Combine this with sour memories of the Japanese occupation of China during World War II, and the islands have become a symbol of China’s damaged pride.
But neither nation would likely be so protective of the islands if not for a 1969 report by the United Nations. Sheila Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies with the Council on Foreign Relations, says a geological study stated the East China Sea, home of the now-disputed islands, could contain hydrocarbon reserves rivaling large deposits in the Middle East.
“Today in the media,” Smith tells Latitude News, “it’s all about China’s rise, its global search for resources. But in the late 1960s, it was Japan. Japan was deeply interested in accessing energy abroad.”
The U.S. was embroiled in the politics of the East China Sea early on. The American occupation of Japan lasted for six years after the close of WWII; but the U.S. did not hand over administrative control of the island of Okinawa (about 1,000 miles southwest of Tokyo) until 1972, three years after the UN report on hydrocarbon potential.
The prefecture of Okinawa is, in fact, only 200 miles east of the Senkaku Islands – throughout the U.S. occupation, Japan technically controlled the islands. When the U.S. gave back Okinawa to Japan in 1972, it also formally recognized Japan’s administrative control of the Senkaku.
And that’s when the modern controversy began.
American recognition of Japan’s control of the islands “precipitated a public statement from the [People’s Republic of China] saying Japan ought not be negotiating the islands with the U.S.,” says Smith.
The 1960s and 1970s were a transformative time for relations between Japan, China and the U.S., a time when the U.S. walked a fine diplomatic line. Japan’s economy was on the rise. It was re-establishing its relationship with the U.S. while not improving its poor relations with its Chinese neighbor. Around the same time, President Richard Nixon visited China.
Japan and China were prickly neighbors in the 1970s. They spent most of that decade negotiating a normalization treaty aimed at broadening economic cooperation. But there was one sticking point they could not agree on: who controls the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands?
“The compromise,” says Smith, “was to set [the island dispute] aside.”
In other words, both nations agreed to let future generations solve the island problem.
Pivot to . . . what exactly?
Over the past few months, one conflict after another has broken out over the islands. When the Japanese government purchased three of the five islands from a private owner in September, violent demonstrations erupted in China, with protesters destroying Japanese cars and businesses, and pelting the the Japanese embassy in Beijing with eggs and bottles. A few hundred Japanese responded by protesting at the Chinese embassy, though with smaller, tamer crowds than the Chinese protests. Although the Chinese government typically quashes public demonstrations, it was tolerant of the anti-Japanese protests. Both nations have deployed ships to patrol the waters around the islands. China recently sent a state-owned airplane through airspace above the islands, and Japan responded with a fly by of F-15 fighter jets.
Little by little, the U.S. is delineating where it stands, and that is firmly behind Japan’s territorial claims. From Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the U.S. Senate, the official position is subtle, but important: the U.S. takes no position over the sovereignty of the islands (i.e. who owns them), but the U.S. does recognize Japan’s administrative authority over the islands (i.e. who controls them).
The U.S. is basically saying, we don’t want to get involved, but we have a military agreement with Japan, so we will defend these islands if we have to.
As the opinion page of China’s Global Times sees it, “We can no longer ignore the possible involvement of the US in the Diaoyu Islands issue.”
But the U.S. hopes to avoid a military conflict over the islands, preferring instead to see both countries settle the dispute in the International Court of Justice, which would likely side with Japan.
China seems uninterested in going to court. Instead, China now claims its sovereign territory extends to the end of its continental shelf. If this were the case, China would essentially control the entire East China Sea, right up to the Japanese coastline.
“There’s a growing concern,” says Smith, “that China . . . is trying to erode the administrative authority of Japan.”
As the conflict escalates with no indication of stopping, the U.S. will continue to walk a fine diplomatic line. The Obama administration has made much of its “Pivot to Asia,” a broad political, economic and defense agenda that shifts American energies to that part of the world in recognition of Asia’s growing influence.
While the China-Japan island dispute may indicate the “pivot” comes right on time, it’s still unclear what the U.S. is pivoting towards.
Smith says the Pivot to Asia “is a pretty ambitious agenda. It will require assertive but sensitive diplomacy. [The island dispute] is just one more piece of the larger puzzle — the rise of a new power is shifting the balance of power.”
As the two nations on the other side of the globe fight over a handful of tiny islands, the U.S., for better or worse, will have to weigh in to the debate.
“Welcome to the future,” says Smith.