The Senkaku Islands (2013)


This is my “What’s Been Happening in Asia” essay for PAC10 An Introduction to Asia at Griffith University, Australia. It is not my finest work.


In the Summer and Autumn of 2012, relations soured between old enemies China and Japan as a result of the long-disputed Senkaku Islands which are known as “the Diaoyu Islands” in China. (New York Times, 2012) They are located in the South China Sea which is bordered by some of the world’s fastest growing economies, including China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. (New York Times, 2012) It is rich in gas, oil, fishing and mineral resources. (New York Times, 2012) “Japan maintains that an equidistant line from each country involved should separate the [exclusive economic zones], which China claims an Extended Continental Shelf beyond the equidistant line to the Okinawa Trench (which almost reaches Japan’s shore).” (Defense 2009, p. 5)


On the 15th of August, 2012, Japanese authorities arrested fourteen Chinese citizens after a Hong Kong-based vessel landed on one of the islands. (New York Times, 2012) In response, anti-Japanese protests spread across China, seemingly approved by local police. (New York Times, 2012)


Taiwan also claims the islands. Japan turned back a fishing boat from Taiwan, the passengers reportedly wanted to place a statue of a Taiwanese sea goddess who is believed to protect fishermen on one of the Senkaku islands (BBC, 2013). When the boat approached the islands, the Japanese coastguard issued a verbal warning for it to stop and then used a water cannon to force it to turn back. (BBC, 2013)


Japan claims that in December 2012, a Chinese surveillance plane entered airspace claimed by Japan near the disputed islands, Japan then sent fighter jets in response, but the Chinese plane left before the jets arrived. (New York Times, 2012) The Japanese Defence Ministry said the Chinese plane’s incursions was the first known violation of Japanese airspace by a Chinese plane since records began fifty years ago. (New York Times, 2012) Japan formerly protested to China which promptly retorted that it was the Japanese who encroached. (New York Times, 2012) China claims the airspace as its own because it claims the islands. (New York Times, 2012)


It is believed that the dispute between China and Japan could potentially start another Sino-Japanese war. (Wile, 2012) It was recently reignited because the Governor of Tokyo, a well-known nationalist, offered to buy the islands off their private owner. Japanese central government currently rents three of the islands. (McCurry, 2012b) The areas are valuable, but the conflicts are also driven by fears of China’s emerging superpower status as well as resentment over the past, in particular Japan’s history of imperial conquest in the region. (New York Times, 2012) Anti-Japanese sentiment in China has led to significantly reduced sales of Japanese cars in China after Japanese cars and their owners were targeted. (New York Times, 2012) There is much at stake for both countries because the Senkaku islands are near potentially huge gas and oil deposits and are surrounded by valuable fishing grounds (McCurry, 2012a) Protests occurred in more than 80 Chinese cities. (New York Times, 2012)


“The risk is that, without a clear circuit-breaker, the escalation will continue until at some point shots are exchanged, and a spiral to war begins that no one can stop. Neither side could win such a war, and it would be devastating not just for them but for the rest of us. No one wants this, but the crisis will not stop by itself.” (Wile, 2012) Japan is building closer ties to other countries in the region as well as the US in response to concerns over the opacity and size of China’s military spending. (McCurry, 2012a)


Beijing “reacted angrily when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Washington opposed ‘any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration’ of the islands.” (BBC, 2013) The Japanese institute for defence studies warns that China’s navy poses a threat to Japanese security. According to their report, China’s aim was to put itself on an equal naval footing with the US and project sufficient power to dissuade other nations from developing energy resources independently. (McCurry, 2012a)


“‘China’s increasing assertiveness has had a negative impact on the maritime security environment in the Asia-Pacific,’ the institute said. ‘To date, peace and stability in the ocean have been maintained through co-operation between the United States, the only country that can deploy naval forces globally, and many countries that share interests.’” (McCurry, 2012a)


“The US-Japan security alliance has remained at the core of Northeast Asian security thinking and planning.” (Knight and Heazle 2011, p. 212) China has stated that it regards itself as the reason for the alliance’s continuation and expansion since the Cold War. (Knight and Heazle 2011, p. 213) China views the alliance as a threat to national security. (Knight and Heazle 2011, p. 213)


China altered its diplomatic strategy to lessen any potential harm the dispute might have inflicted on the nation’s leadership transition and weakening economy by hosting a scaled-back reception in Beijing commemorating forty years since the resumption of diplomatic relations with Japan. (New York Times, 2012) Japanese people did attend the event but China did not grant clearance for the President of Toyota’s aeroplane to land. (New York Times, 2012) As he was an important guest from Japan, this action was considered to be a message to Japan. (New York Times, 2012)


Both Japan and the USA fear the increasing strength of China. China has used its growing economic power to modernise its defence forces and has been forceful in its implementation of foreign policy objectives. (Knight and Heazle 2011, p. 134) China has attempted to temper concerns over its intentions by framing its increasing power and rapid economic growth within the rhetoric of a ‘harmonious world’ and a ‘peaceful rise’. (Breslin, 2009 cited in Knight and Heazle 2011, p. 135) China’s increasing military expenditure has undermined this diplomatic message of peaceful intentions. (Knight and Heazle 2011, p. 135) The planned conversion of their navy from a defensive coastal navy to a navy capable of offensive action and more recently, its tough stance on border disputes has caused particular concern. (Knight and Heazle 2011, p. 135) China thus is a major figure in foreign policy elsewhere in the region and in the US. (Knight and Heazle 2011, p. 135)


Economic growth will be impaired for both countries due to elevated political tensions. (Knight and Heazle 2011, p. 203) According to some observers, the conflict may erode what has already been achieved economically. (Knight and Heazle 2011, p. 203) “Economic growth will remain the primary concern of both governments for some time to come … and it is unlikely, therefore, that either government would not act to prevent the political relationship deteriorating to the point where economic growth could be compromised.” (Knight and Heazle 2011, p. 203) However, the situation is highly complex and could possibly escalate to open conflict. (Knight and Heazle 2011, p. 203)


George Koo, the founder of International Strategic Alliances, said “The US has created this mess and the US is continuing to prolong the problem between the Japan and China. The US is again playing the strategic ambiguity game by on the one hand saying, we’re neutral about this, and we’re not taking sides between China and Japan but on the other hand we [recognise] that Japan has administrative control and therefore, we would be opposed to any unilateral action. But how did Japan get military control? The US turned [the islands] over to them. From the beginning to end, the US was responsible for this particular mess”. (Russia Today, 2013)


Most of the world watches and waits while China and Japan dispute the Senkaku Islands, the USA, however, interferes. If the dispute were between different countries, amicable compromise or sale would be possible, but considering the length of the dispute between Japan and China and their historical animosity, it is unlikely that any satisfactory long-term solution will be found.


Historically, nationalism was strongly influential in the region. (Knight and Heazle 2011, p. 83) Disputes like this suggest it still is. “The fact that much of the resentment expressed against Japan is coming from younger, rather than older, generations of Chinese indicates that ill-feeling against the Japanese has been kept very much alive in China.” (Knight and Heazle 2011, p. 202)


Another Sino-Japanese war could be highly damaging to both countries’ growth, but China in particular. Western forces such as the USA generally side with Japan and are more suspicious of China with its increasing military and economic power. Warring with Japan again would undermine the recently-formed image of a modern, changed and enlightened China in many people’s eyes. American interference in the conflict would thoroughly sour relations with China, leading to diminished trade. This in turn may be highly beneficial for the burgeoning Indian economy, as they will probably not be affected adversely by the conflict in any significant way but may see an increase in trade with the USA and other nations friendly to Japan if war were declared with China.




BBC, 2013. Japan turns Taiwan activists back from disputed islands. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 5 February 2013].

Breslin, S., 2009. Understanding China’s regional rise: Interpretations, identities and implications. International Affairs. 85(4)

Defense, Office of the Secretary of, 2009. Military Power of the People’s Republic of China. Washington: Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Knight, N. and Heazle, M., 2011. Understanding Australia’s Neighbours. 2nd ed. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

McCurry, J., 2012a. Japan casts wary eye across East China Sea. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 1 February 2013].

McCurry, J., 2012b. Tokyo’s rightwing governor plans to buy disputed Senkaku Islands. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 2 February 2013].

New York Times, The, 2012. China’s Territorial Disputes. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 30 January 2013].

Russia Today, 2013. Beijing slams US over island dispute comments. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 15 February 2013].

Wile, R., 2012. Professor predicts war between China and Japan. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 5 February 2013].