Why this dispute over Japan and China could be Asia’s next military point

Both Tokyo and Beijing claim that the uninhabited islands, known in Japan as Senkakus and Diaoyus in China, are theirs, but Japan has ruled them since 1972.

Tensions around the rock chain (1,900 kilometers) southwest of Tokyo have been shaping for years, and claims about them date back hundreds of years, neither Japan nor China are likely to retreat across territory considered national law in both capitals. .

In this respect, the islands are not unlike the rocky heights of the Himalayas, where a decade of tensions on the ill-defined border between China and India erupted on Monday night, leading to a conflict that cost the lives of at least 20 Indian soldiers,

The fighting, though deadly, was relatively limited – and the two sides discussed tensions over the days.

But an unexpected fire in Senkaku / Diaoyus could provoke a military confrontation between China and the United States.

This is because the United States has a mutual defense agreement with Japan. If Japanese territory is attacked by a foreign power, the United States is obliged to defend it.

Fears of a possible conflict were heightened last week by the Japanese Coast Guard announcing that Chinese government ships had been seen daily in waters near Senakaku / Diaoyu Island since mid-April, setting a new record in the number of consecutive days.

By Friday, those sightings had reached 67 days in a row.

Taking unwavering positions

In response to a heightened Chinese presence, Yoshihide Suga, the chief secretary of the Japanese cabinet, reaffirmed Tokyo’s decision at a news conference last Wednesday.

“The Senkaku Islands are under our control and are unquestionably our territory historically and under international law. It is extremely serious for these activities to continue. We will respond to the Chinese side firmly and calmly,” Suga said.

In a statement Friday, China’s foreign ministry said the same thing as last year’s government in Tokyo.

“Diaoyu Island and its islands are an integral part of Chinese territory, and it is our inherent right to conduct patrols and law enforcement activities in those waters.”

Similar comments were recently published in Chinese journals State Times, A report titled “Japanese Conservatives Obstruct Recovery of Sino-Japanese Ties by Resolving Diagoyu Island Dispute” criticized attempts by Japan’s Okinawa prefecture to change the island’s administration, noting that it could seriously damage Japan-China relations.

For his part, the move proposed by Ishigaki City Council, where the islands are governed, seems pretty harmless.

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According to Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, the council wants to separate the islands from the inhabited parts of Ishigaki Island to direct administrative practices.

But in a resolution before Ishigaki City Council, the city “claims the islands are part of Japanese territory.”

It is a language that is classified in Beijing.

“Changing administrative appointments at this point can only complicate the dispute and bring more risks of crisis,” Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at the University of China, told the Global Times.

The vote in Ishigaki is expected at a council meeting on Monday.

The last “crisis” around the island in 2012 took place last week.

That year, Japan nationalized the then privately owned islands to prevent the planned sale of the then governor of Tokyo, a hardline nationalist who allegedly hoped to develop the islands.

People photograph a Japanese car damaged during a protest against the nationalization of Japan. disputed islands of Diaoyu, also known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands, in the Chinese city of Xi & # 39; September 15, 2012
The plan sparked massive and extremely unusual street protests across China amid conversations with nationalist sentiments.

The demonstrations were violent as protesters threw debris at the Japanese embassy in Beijing, ran over Japanese shops and restaurants and overturned Japanese cars.

In an amazing illustration of how the islands were set on fire in the Chinese consciousness, a Chinese man was beaten in a coma by his compatriots just because he was driving a Toyota Corolla.

History of quarrel

China says its claim to the islands stretches back to the 1400s, when they were used as a stage venue for a Chinese fisherman.

However, Japan says that in the research of 1885, it did not see a trace of Chinese control of the islands, so in 1895 it formally recognized them as the sovereign territory of Japan.

A group of settlers produced dried fish and collected feathers, and the islands at one point had more than 200 inhabitants, according to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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Japan then sold the islands in 1932 to descendants of the original settlers, but the factory failed around 1940 and the islands were eventually abandoned. The Japanese surrender at the end of World War II in 1945 only resolved the issue even more.

The islands were ruled by American occupation forces after the war. But in 1972, Washington returned them to Japan as part of a retreat from Okinawa.

Separated Japanese rising sun & # 39; the flag was hoisted on a dead fish during a demonstration in Taipei on September 14, 2010, over the disputed Senkaku / Diaoyu Island chain.

Self-governing Taiwan, which Beijing considers a Chinese province, also claims ownership of the chain.

The objections to the administrative reclassification of islands in Taiwan also show the depth to which the islands connect their applicants.

Tsai Wen-yi, a city councilor in Taiwan’s Yilan district, said that if the Japanese change passes, he would organize a flotilla of fishing boats from the area to “defend” the islands from Japan, according to report from the Taipei Times.
Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces & # 39; Amphibious vehicles attacked the beach during an amphibious landing exercise in the Philippines in 2018.
The defense of Senkaku / Diaoyus has been a priority for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) in recent years. Council on Foreign Relations notes that Tokyo has established new military bases nearby to protect the island. The JSDF also builds its Marines and drills them on island wars.

Although the islands are uninhabited, there are also economic interests, according to the CFR.

The islands “have potential oil and natural gas reserves, are located near prominent shipping routes and are surrounded by rich fishing areas,” it says.

Which could start a conflict

All of this creates potential trouble, says William Choong, senior fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore

“Compared to other flash points in the region – the South China Sea, Taiwan and North Korea weapons programs – the East China Sea combines a unique and flammable blend of history, honor and territory.” Choong wrote on The Interpreter this month, a blog of the Lowy Institute in Australia.
Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) image script where something easy to imagine – the crew of a disabled ship or plane landing on one of the islands – can turn into a serious international incident.
Tiny islets that could explode China-Vietnam relationship

“If Chinese fishing crews, coastguards or military personnel landed on Senkakus, then the Japanese Coast Guard would no doubt try to remove them in law enforcement action. But given that China does not recognize Japan’s demands, it is certainly possible that Beijing it could see this as an escalation, which could result in significant military reactions from China, “the AMTI website said.

In the current climate in the Indo-Pacific Ocean, China indicates that it is ready to submit its claims. For example, in the South China Sea, China has relocated aircraft to the artificial islands it has built; one Vietnamese fishing boat sank and another broke through; he harassed a Malaysian survey ship and sent one of his own into the waters claimed by Indonesia; in the past few weeks alone, Chinese warplanes have warned Taiwanese fighters at least five times.

And ironically nodding to what is happening in the East China Sea, Beijing has reclassified its claims to islands in the South China Sea, giving the islands of Spratly / Nansha and Paracel / Xisha a more significant status in the state hierarchy.

Then in the Himalayas is the border of India and China. Before and after the deadly clash last Monday, the state-run Chinese media was heavy with stories and images of new military hardware Beijing could bring to the mountains.

Choong argues that it would be unreasonable to think that Senkakus / Diaoyus were not marked for similar attention at some point.

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“The question is not whether China, which is now the target of the American press working on the court, would want to challenge Japan over the island. The question is when and how? That’s what keeps Japanese (and American) policymakers awake at night,” he wrote. Choong.

CNN’s Junko Ogura, Kaori Enjoji, Shawn Deng and Katie Hunt contributed to this report.

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