China has witnessed a sea of anti-Japan protests across the country. Chinese protestors have vandalized the Japanese embassy in Beijing, they have set fire to and destroyed Japanese cars and businesses.
All of this was fanned by the dispute over the Diaoyu islands as they’re called by China, and the Senkaku islands as they are known in Japan.
Tensions have been building along the maritime borders in East Asia for some time now, but Japan’s decision to purchase the islands, and the arrival of Japanese fishing boats on the island made matters worse.
It is widely argued that Japan’s central government bought the islands and chose not to develop them, to get them away from Tokyo’s prime minister Shintaro Ishihara, a nationalist who is extremely critical of China.
But why are these islands, claimed by China, Japan, and Taiwan the subject of such intense protests? Is it really just about energy or does it have to do with Sino-Japanese relations that go back years? We drew on Martin Lohmeyer’s thesis, “The Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands Dispute: Questions of Sovereignty and Suggestions for Resolving the Dispute,” to answer some of these questions.
Off the bat, the biggest question is the sovereignty of the islands that China, Japan, and Taiwan have variously laid claim to over hundreds of years.
During the middle ages the disputed islands were said to belong to a “tributary state” that was controlled by the Chinese emperor. But the country continued to lose power after the Opium War. It then lost the island of Formosa (Taiwan) and was forced to recognize Korea* as an independent nation, according to Lohmeyer.
Japan claims it discovered the islands in 1884 when a Japanese businessman, Tatsushiro Koga, who wanted to cultivate the soil on the islands, wanted to lease the land. But the Okinawa government and the home ministry denied the businessman such a contract for a few years because they weren’t certain if the islands belonged to Japan or China and because they didn’t want to raise Chinese suspicions.
Chinese scholars point to this among other things to argue that Japan didn’t have authority over the islands.
Koga was however given rights to cultivate the land of four of the islands in 1896 and is said to have done so till the 1920s. His son is said to have bought the islands soon after his death.
To build its case on sovereignty over the islands Japan also points to the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, in which China agreed to cede Taiwan to Japan along with it all the islands that belonged to Taiwan. However, the treaty didn’t mention the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands by name which doesn’t help clarify matters.
In fact Lohmeyer points out that the ownership of these islands in particular were sidestepped during the Cairo Declaration in 1943, decree 667 by the UN on the Japanese territory and so on. From Lohmeyer:
“As early as 1372 Chinese Imperial Envoys used the islands as a navigation point. China argues that even in the 18th century Japanese maps showed the islands to be Chinese territory. Taiwan’s claim to the islands concentrates on the argument that Taiwan had occupied them for a long time and that the islands form a natural prolongation of the Taiwanese continental shelf. Japan claims that until the end of the 19th century the islands were “terra nullius” [land belonging to no one].
Since 1894, the islands have been under Japanese administration. In the Sino-Japanese war in 1895, China was forced to cede Taiwan and all the islands belonging to her to Japan. Later, in the Sino-Japanese treaty of 1952 the parties signed that as a consequence of the war all prior agreements were hereby null and void. After World War II, the U.S. administered the disputed islands in conjunction with the Okinawa Islands. In 1972, the U.S. returned administration to Japan.”
Second, after years of conflict, Sino-Japanese relations have continued to be strained in recent years.
China helped the allies fight Germany during World War I on the condition that certain territories held by Germany like the Shandong peninsula be returned to China. Instead they were handed over to Japan which China viewed as a betrayal.
In 1931 Japan claimed that an attack on its rail line was carried out by Chinese troops and used it as an excuse to attack the nation. It soon emerged that it was set off by a Japanese general.
Japan occupied Manchuria starting 1931 and launched a full scale invasion in 1937, all of which have, over time, built strong anti-imperialist sentiment in China.
A piece in Xinhua today refers back to this tension between Japan and China:
“The Diaoyu Islands “nationalization” is just the latest provocation from Japan to have strongly reminded Chinese of the wartime past.
Sino-Japanese relations soured in the early 2000s with an interruption of the exchanges of high-level visits, due to then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors class-A WWII war criminals.”
Tomorrow happens to be the 81st anniversary of the Manchurian Incident. That Japan purchased the islands, and that a boat of Japanese nationalists landed on the disputed islands has fanned anti-Japanese sentiment in China and sparked widespread protests.
Third, the islands are believed to be rich in oil and natural gas.
As if they needed any more reason, the East Asian Continental shelf is supposed to be rich in energy resources.
For energy-hungry China, and Japan which is shutting down its nuclear plants, ownership of the islands would also give them rights to its energy resources, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) .
The region was first believed to be rich in energy in 1969 when geologists from South Korea and the Philippines set up a committee, and under the direction of the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) began surveying for minerals in the region, according to Lohmeyer.
While oil prices slumped during the 1980s oil glut, the islands didn’t receive much international attention. But at a time when oil prices are high and disputes in the Middle East threaten oil supply the islands have come back into international focus.
Finally, the islands lie at a strategic point in the East China Sea that would allow the country that has ownership of them the opportunity to set up surveillance and potentially spy on its neighbors. For Japan, the region is also significant because its Middle East oil imports pass through the region.
But both governments have already been moving to calm the public in their respective countries since both countries are hugely dependent on one another and have worked to build bi-lateral trade relations.
Chinese state media have called for a more “rational” response from demonstrators and Beijing has promised to protect Chinese citizens while warning the Japanese to pay heed to Chinese public opinion.
Tomorrow, September 18, marks the 81st anniversary of the Manchurian incident and protests are expected to flare up again.
Note: For the purposes of this piece we focused on just Japanese and Chinese claims to the ownership of the islands, and didn’t focus on Taiwan. *The piece was updated to reflect that China had to recognize Korea as an independent nation.