To navigate the Senkaku Islands dispute, look to history by MASUO Chisako

“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments that precede the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API; Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University; Visiting Fellow, Downing College, University of Cambridge)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on May 10, 2022:

API Geoeconomic Briefing

Photo:11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters/AP/Afro

May 10, 2022

To navigate the Senkaku Islands dispute, look to history

MASUO Chisako
Associate Professor, Faculty of Social and Cultural Studies, Kyushu University





The COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the continuing rise of China — various changes have been occurring in international politics in recent years, bringing about structural rearrangements.

But in such a situation, how should Japan ensure its national security?

The most pressing security issue for Japan is China’s territorial claims over the Senkaku Islands and its attempt for control.

In September, Japan and China will mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic normalization. But there is no celebratory mood within Japan, as it has been witnessing China’s recent moves including the repression of pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, the establishment of China’s coast guard law and militant coercion regarding Taiwan.

Still, it should be noted that China has not always posed a threat to Japan regarding the Senkaku Islands issue during the past half a century. The importance of the islands to China has changed greatly with the times.

It is important to look back on the history of this issue to analyze the meaning of the ongoing changes to predict China’s future actions.

For Beijing, the Senkaku Islands have now turned into a significant part of its global competition against Washington. China is entering a new phase of its “conceal your strengths and bide your time” tactics and is aiming to improve its maritime surveillance and control capabilities on a grand scale in the long term.

To prevent a reversal of power relations, Japan must work together with other countries to enhance maritime domain awareness and strengthen overall deterrence against China.


Maritime interests

The Chinese government claimed territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands — which it calls the Diaoyu — for the first time in December 1971.

Beijing insists that the islands are its inherent territory, using historical documents fragmentally and arbitrarily. However, the claims are political fiction when viewed from academic perspectives.

In the late 1960s, the United Nations’ Economic Commission on Asia and the Far East conducted extensive resource surveys in the East China Sea and suggested the possible existence of huge oil reserves in the waters off the Senkaku Islands, even larger than the reserves in the Middle East.

The finding, which was later confirmed to be inaccurate, attracted the attention of Taiwanese intellectuals at the time, leading Taiwan and then China to assert territorial sovereignty over the islands in 1971.

At that time, the Senkaku Islands were under the administration of the United States.

After World War II, the U.S. drew new territorial boundaries for Japan under the San Francisco Peace Treaty, exercised administrative authority over Okinawa Prefecture including the Senkaku Islands on the premise that they are part of Japanese territory, and took a lease on two islets in the Senkakus to use them as firing ranges.

However, U.S. President Richard Nixon’s administration, which set about seeking rapprochement with China in July 1971 hoping it would help end the Vietnam War, did not take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkakus when China suddenly began asserting its rights to the islands.

Such a move by the U.S. came as a betrayal for Japan, tormenting the country for a long time.

In May 1972, the U.S. returned administrative rights over Okinawa, along with the Senkaku Islands, to Japan.

There was another development that led to China’s sudden assertion. In October 1971, following rapprochement with the U.S., Beijing was finally permitted to join the United Nations.

At that time, the U.N. had been discussing a new maritime legal order that later took shape as the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China took part in a related conference for the first time in January 1972.

In making preparations for the conference, Beijing must have realized the importance of islands for claiming larger waters in the emerging international order.

Later, China made jurisdictional claims over the entire continental shelf extending to the Okinawa Trough, demanding almost all the East China Sea — as it has done with the South China Sea. The Senkaku Islands are located on the continental shelf, a strategic position for its claim. Beijing introduced the concept of the continental shelf together with its assertion over the islands.

Consideration for its own maritime interests had been the most important factor in Beijing’s territorial claims over the Senkakus until the late 1980s. However, Japan’s economic cooperation was indispensable for China’s development. Beijing shelved the issue for a while and kept quiet.


Anti-U.S. and anti-Japan

The next change came in 1989. As Western countries imposed sanctions on China following the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Beijing started to see Washington as a threat and shifted its focus to the ocean as a buffer against the U.S.

In 1992, China enacted the Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, explicitly delineating its claim over the islands as part of Chinese territory for the first time in its law.

China’s vigilance against security threats increased further after the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. Around that time, in preparation for a Taiwan contingency, Beijing repeatedly conducted scientific surveys in the waters near the Senkaku Islands adjacent to the Taiwan Strait.

Still, China refrained from taking an aggressive stance as the U.S. pursued its engagement policy with Beijing and also because of a huge power gap between the two countries.

Consequently, what prompted China to take new moves was anti-Japan nationalism.

After the end of the Cold War, Beijing began criticizing Japan’s perception of history. In 1996, when Japan and China ratified UNCLOS, discussions on the Diaoyu intensified within China and the islands quickly emerged as a symbol of anti-Japan nationalism.

As anti-Japanese sentiment increased among the Chinese people following then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine between 2001 and 2006, the China Marine Surveillance (CMS) agency under the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) stepped up operations near the Senkakus.

CMS vessels entered territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands for the first time in December 2008 under the pretext of conducting regular patrols. The Japan Coast Guard (JCG) upgraded its surveillance in the area.

In September 2010, a Chinese fishing boat was involved in a collision with two JCG patrol ships as it attempted to leave territorial waters off an island where it had been operating for a long time.

And in 2012, the Chinese government induced its people to join the large-scale and violent anti-Japan movement upon the Japanese government’s purchase of the three privately-owned islands in the Senkaku group.

China was able to take such actions because, at that time, the Senkaku Islands had been an issue that involved only Japan and China.

The U.S. maintained its stance of not getting involved in disputes between countries concerning sovereignty. Even after China-Japan tensions rose in 2010, Washington went only as far as saying the isles are subject to Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty, implying that the U.S. can defend Japan if it is attacked by a third party.

Because the U.S. is geographically distant from Asia, the perception that China was expanding its sphere of influence by using its newly gained power did not spread so easily within the U.S.

In the meantime, China bolstered the capabilities of the CMS, which was renamed the China Coast Guard in 2013 and was brought under the direction of the Central Military Commission in 2018.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

However, as the rise of China began to have an impact on the global community and Washington’s view of Beijing changed, the structure surrounding the issue of the Senkakus was also reorganized.

Since the time of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, Washington has regarded the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea from the integrated perspective of China seeking to overturn the existing international order.

Therefore, Beijing also had to handle the Senkakus as a part of its entire national security issues against the U.S.

Such a tendency grew even stronger with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, as the move led many Western industrialized countries to fear that China could take a similar action against Taiwan.

However, the Ukrainian people’s strong resistance made Beijing realize the difficulty of capturing Taiwan across the sea, and Western countries’ economic sanctions against Russia have revealed the seriousness of their possible impact on its people’s livelihood. The possibility of China making such a move in the near future has been largely reduced.

China will never completely give up its sovereignty issues. But having lost an important superpower partner in Russia and being left on its own to continue with its long standoff against the U.S., China must act cautiously in all maritime issues, including the Senkaku Islands.

For the time being, China is likely to maintain its “conceal your strengths and bide your time” policy and work on capability building as it waits for its chance.


Maritime surveillance and control capability

Particular attention should be paid to the rapid improvement of China’s maritime surveillance and control capabilities and expansion of its global influence.

In its 13th five-year program, starting in 2016, China set “spatial infrastructure development” as one of the objectives, seeking to construct new infrastructure linking space, air, sea and land by utilizing information technology and artificial intelligence.

The Chinese government aims to expand its surveillance network globally by collecting information on a wide scale using satellites, floating devices and deep-water platforms. It intends to integrate various data collected from different sources to establish comprehensive big data on global waters.

This strategy has been further strengthened by the 14th five-year program, starting in 2021.

In the fiscal 2022 budget of the Ministry of Natural Resources that succeeded the SOA, 83% is related to maritime and meteorological information.

The ministry is responsible for establishing and implementing the National Territorial and Spatial Program that has been initiated under the 14th five-year program. Yet, it is highly focused on the global and maritime spheres, which is quite unbalanced for a domestic organization.

Maritime and meteorological information collected by the ministry can also be utilized to tackle global issues such as climate change. So far, however, China does not release related essential data, providing little transparency on its intentions and activities.

China’s moves represent a counteraction against the rising interest in maritime domain awareness among Western industrialized countries. Although Beijing had been slow to start, a socialist country has an advantage in that it can devote its economic and human resources to a certain area to create an integrated system.

China will push forward innovation of data application technologies through military-civil fusion, boost its military and economic power, and aim to expand its sphere of influence under the Belt and Road initiative.

Standoffs between China and other countries are likely to intensify — albeit inconspicuously — with some taking place on the waters of Asia.

If China is given superiority, there might be a day when the country exercises its accumulated power all at once in the wake of a contingency.

To prevent such a situation, Japan should increase the number of its collaboration partners in the global community, enhance maritime domain awareness — making it as seamless as possible, while also involving Taiwan — and watch China’s maritime movements.

Moreover, military capability is indispensable to deter China, which believes in force. That is why Tokyo needs to work with Washington and further strengthen cooperation with like-minded countries centered around the U.S. in various fields.

In fact, however, the U.S. has also deviated from rules and norms a number of times, disrupting world order.

As a country advocating a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” Japan has the important task of persuading the U.S. to make efforts to rebuild trust and work to form a fair international order that is convincing for other countries.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.