Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Disputes

Wen Ren

The territorial disputes among Japan, China and Taiwan over a small group of islets – known as Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyu in China and Diaoyutai in Taiwan – have been ongoing for several decades, but have gone largely unnoticed. In September 2012, however, the Japanese government purchased the islands from private owners, antagonizing China. The issue caused international anxiety that the escalated tensions could lead to armed conflicts, possibly involving the United States in a wider war to protect its ally, Japan. At the center of the disputes is the ownership of the islands and control of the strategic maritime zone and water resources. The recent developments in the islands disputes have caused stress to neighboring Asian countries, especially those who also have territorial issues with China but fear its power. However, the salient domestic challenges that the new generation of leaders are facing is what underscores the actions and rhetoric by the Japanese and Chinese governments.


The history of Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the competing claims

The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are made up of five major uninhabited islands and three barren rocks in the China East Sea. They located approximately 120 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan, 200 nautical miles east of the Chinese mainland and 200 nautical miles southwest of the Japanese island of Okinawa, with total area of about 6 square kilometers.

China claims that Senkaku/Diaoyu islands were first discovered and recorded by the ancient Chinese and have been included in its territory for centuries. The earliest written record about Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is in a marine book ‘Voyage with the Tail Wind’ (顺风相送), finished in the early 15th century by Ming Dynasty officials. Descriptions of the islands also appeared in the official documents and maps by the Qing Dynasty government in the following centuries, which placed Senkaku/Diaoyu under the jurisdiction of Taiwan, then part of Qing.

After the First Sino-Japanese War (1894 to 1895), the defeated Qing Dynasty government signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895 and ceded Taiwan to Japan. The treaty stated that “the island of Formosa (Taiwan), together with all islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Formosa” should be ceded to Japan (The Japan-China Treaty 1895). According to the Potsdam Declaration after WWII, Japan should relinquish the control of the Formosa (Taiwan) Islands together with all islands appertaining or belonging to it. From this perspective, China and Taiwan have similar claims that Senkaku/Diaoyu islands were included in the islands appertaining to Formosa (Taiwan) in both the Treaty and the Declaration. Therefore, Senkaku/Diaoyu should be part of Taiwan. In addition, China has also claimed sovereignty over Taiwan, thereby Senkaku/Diaoyu

However, Japan argues that there is no sovereignty issue at all. Japan claims that Senkaku belonged to no one prior to its control in 19th century. Japanese Meji government annexed the islands as part of Okinawa in 1895. Therefore, Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are not appertaining or belonging to the island of Formosa (Taiwan) in the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Japanese scholars also found contradicting Chinese historical records showing that Taiwan was considered a foreign country to the Ming Dynasty. Japan asserts that China only became possessive about the islands in 1971, after the United Nations reported that a large oil and gas reserve might exist in the water near the islands.

In 1900, Japanese entrepreneur Koga Tasushiro occupied the islands and built a bonito processing plant. After the business failed, the Tasushiro family sold the islands in 1970 to the Kurihara family who then became the private owner of the islands according to the Japanese government.


Escalated tensions and the anti-Japan protest in 2012

Despite disagreements and several isolated incidents, the matter of Senkaku/Diaoyu had not really caused diplomatic tensions among Japan, China, or Taiwan for decades. In fact, the Chinese government tacitly acknowledged that Japan realistically controlled the islands in the past decades by carefully restraining its maritime surveillance vessels from entering the disputed area where the Japan Coast Guard regularly patrolled. From time to time, activists from each side landed on the islands to demonstrate sovereign rights, which caused media attention and protests on a small scale. In recent years, there were also incidents near the islands caused by Chinese or Taiwanese fishing vessels entering the disputed sea zones claimed by Japan, and some cases resulting in ship collisions.

Nevertheless, the issue was quickly escalated in 2012 by a series of actions taken by the Japanese government in an attempt to purchase the islands from the Kurihara family. In April 2012, activist Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara offered to buy the islands on behalf of Tokyo with $20 million raised from private donations. In a move to block nationalists from acquiring the islets, Japan’s central government joined the bidding and announced a successful purchase for about $26 million on September 12th, 2012. The attempted purchase really antagonized China and triggered the largest anti-Japan protests in more than 50 cities in China (Johnson & Shanker 2012).

Unfortunately, protests in some cities spun out of control and became violent. Media reported that a Panasonic factory was set on fire and a Toyota dealership shop was robbed. Rioters destroyed some Japanese restaurants and looted shops which sold Japanese products. Angry protesters also smashed Japanese brand cars on street. Chinese government and police appeared slow in taking action to appease the angers. Nevertheless, the Chinese media and social network called for “rational patriotism” and expressed strong revulsion to the violence, which eventually cooled the heated patriotism (Johnson & Shanker 2012).

Within Japan, people appear to be almost too cool. However, some antagonistic rhetoric was heard during the electoral period in that candidates took aggressive stances toward China. A political analyst stated that though the Chinese government officially denounced the protests and professed tolerance towards the Japanese people, there was a historical pattern of its employment of mass protests and boycotts to express its true foreign policy objectives (Johnson & Shanker 2012).


How these incidents could lead to a wider war involving U.S.

On September 11th 2012, China sent two patrol vessels to the islands to demonstrate its sovereignty claims, and has since ever taken more assertive actions by frequently sending unarmed surveillance and patrol ships to the to the disputed islands (Associated Press 2012). In December of 2012, China sent a surveillance plane into the air over the islands, that the first known involvement of the military in the disputes. Japan considered those unilateral actions provocative, warned China over the “intrusive” actions, and dispatched vessels to stake its claims (Torres 2013).

At the same time, Japan tried to obtain the support from its ally, the US. In the 1972 Okinawa Reversion Treaty, Senkaku/Diaoyu islands were included in the territories handed back to Japan. Therefore, the Security Treaty between the two countries was applicable on the islands. State Senator Hillary Clinton made the point clear that the US has never taken a position on sovereignty, but that the islands are part of the treaty obligations to defend Japan (Clinton 2010). The Security Treaty describes the obligation to defend Japan if there is an armed attack in the territories under the administration of Japan. “Administration” rather than “sovereignty” is used in the Security Treaty, to show that the US remains neutral, but to simultaneously admit the “administration” of Japan over Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

The American support of Japan alerted the international community to the possibility that a small incidence in the disputed area, if considered as an “armed attack”, could drag the US into battle and trigger a wider war. The timing is also noteworthy, since it has been about 100 years since the start of WWI in 1914, when an incident led to the outbreak of a war that few wanted but none could avoid.


Political and economic considerations behind the issue

While running for the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Presidency, the five candidates all made a point of saying that Japanese sovereignty over Senkaku/Diaoyu was more important than any economic consideration. Amongst these candidates was Shinzo Abe, who later became the Prime Minister after the LDP’s landslide victory in the 2012 general election. Yet, it just is hard to put aside the fact that China is the most important market for Japan.

China has been Japan’s largest trading partner since 2003. Japan’s actual cumulative investment in China reached $84 billion in June 2012. In the first half of 2012, Japan’s export to China totaled 73.54 billion US dollars, down 6.2 percent from the same period last year, while its import from China was 91.29 billion US dollars, up 7 percent from the same period last year (Xinhua 2012). Since 2009, China has replaced U.S. to become the largest exporting market for Japan (figure 1). As Japanese domestic market shrinks, due to the aging population, and government debt skyrockets to 175% of GDP (figure 2), it is clear to Japan’s policymakers that the country’s economy depends on the Chinese market to a huge extent.

Figure 1

Figure 2

During the protests in China, some Japanese businesses were shut down temporarily in reaction. Lost production from Nissan Motor Co was estimated to be $250 million during the week of suspension(Reuters 2012). The Guardian also attributed the protests to a global slowdown and the drop in Japanese exports (Elliott 2012). Chinese consumers made it clear that their anti-Japan sentiment is detrimental to Japan’s economy, and that Japan should be responsible for not provoking such emotions.

The new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Liberal Democratic Party) is central-right conservative and holds an assertive stance towards China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands issue. While the priority for the new government is to move the country past a long-lasting stagnant economic growth (figure 3), Shinzo Abe also promised to be tougher on China than the previous government. Instead of making peace with China, Shinzo Abe accused the ruling Communist Party using the disputes to maintain a strong domestic support. Facing the potential threats from China, Abe laid out his plans for deterrence, which include revising its war-renouncing constitution, boosting military spending and strengthening ties with other Asian countries that share concerns about China’s growth (Harlan 2013).

Figure 3

In contrast, the new Chinese Chairman Xi Jingping has not shown a strong stance over the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue, and has merely reiterating the country’s claimed sovereignty over the islets. There is speculation that he may be in the process of moderating China’s assertive stances toward Japan following months of heated disputes (GB Times 2013). In recent years, China has experienced high domestic tensions provoked government corruption, environmental pollution, and the widening gap between rich and poor. Since he took over the leadership position, Xi has been taking initiatives to revitalize people’s trust towards the government by rebuilding the image of the communist party. Scholars expected that Xi would take harsh actions against corruption. However, Xi’s political stance and his approach have still not been fully expressed. It is still too early to tell the route he is going to take to resolve the territorial dispute with Japan.

While no progress has been being made on the fundamental issue after new leaders in both countries took full power, the Senkaku/Diaoyu disputes will remain a test for both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chairman Xi, in handling different domestic problems and challenges.


Timeline of Senkaku/Diaoyu Dispute

15th-16th centuries Chinese books, published during the Ming Dynasty, mention Diaoyu in chronicling journeys through the island area.
1895 The Japanese government annexes a group of five uninhabited islands and three rocks as part of Okinawa on the grounds that they have never been controlled by any other country.
1896 Japanese entrepreneur Tatsushiro Koga builds plants to process bonito fish and albatross feathers, later employing up to 280 workers.
1918 Koga dies and his son Zenji takes over his business.
1932 The Japanese government sells four of the islands to Zenji Koga.
1945 Japan surrenders at the end of the Second World War. The islands remain under U.S. occupation as part of Okinawa until 1972.
1949 The People’s Republic of China is founded by the Communist Party, with the Nationalists retreating to the island of Taiwan.
1969 The UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific reports there may be potential undersea oil reserves in the water.
1971 The governments of China and Taiwan formally declare ownership of the islands.
1972 Okinawa is returned to Japanese rule.
1972-1985 Koga sells the islands in individual transactions to the Kurihara family
1978 Japanese nationalists build a lighthouse on one of the islands, and hand over to the Japanese government in 2005.
1996 The nationalists build a second lighthouse on another of the islands. Several activists from Hong Kong dive into waters off the islands to claim sovereignty and one of them drowns.
2002 Japanese government starts renting the islands from Kurihara family.
2004 Chinese activists land on one of the disputed islands. Japan Prime minister Junichiro Koizumi orders their deportation after two days.
September, 2010 A Chinese fishing boat rams two Japanese coastguard patrol boats off the islands.
April 16, 2012 Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara announces the intention to buy the Kurihara-owned islands.
July 7, 2012 Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda says his government is joining the bidding.
August 15, 2012 Japanese police arrest 14 pro-China activists
August 17, 2012 All 14 pro-China activists are deported.
August 19, 2012 Japanese nationalists land on the islands without permission.
December 26, 2012 New Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office
January 2013 China scrambled fighters, acknowledged in the first time that military is included
March 2013 New China President Xi Jinping took office



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