At first glance, there is a serene nature to the islands that make up the Okinawa prefecture. Picturesque surrounding ocean and rich flora and fauna make for a paradise-like setting. In reality, one collection of deserted islands at the west end of the chain is creating havoc for its two fiercely proud neighbours.
The remote islands by the name of Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China are at the centre of a tricky political situation that has been developing in the East China Sea.
The spat between the two is just another chapter in the rocky relationship both countries share. Control of the region has been at stake since the late 19th century when both fought in the Sino-Japanese wars. Preceding and throughout the Second World War, the political systems of both countries were thrust into an idealistic battle creating further division. The current dispute over these islands has brought a renewed relevance to several conflicts that are now over fifty years old. The Nanking Massacre of 1937 and other World War II atrocities are a severe blemish on Japanese history and have remained relevant in the last decade through denials and questions surrounding the authenticity of historical sources and the denial of facts by high ranking Japanese officials. This has brought anti-Japanese sentiment to the forefront of the current dispute, making the issue an ideological debate on top of a territorial dispute. National pride, ideals, and the future relationship of both countries are heavily intertwined with the fate of these rocky outcrops at sea.
Taiwan has added itself into the mix, desiring the fishing rights off the islands. This further complicates matters, as China claims Taiwan as a part of its jurisdiction. The island was handed over to the Chinese after Japan was forced to renounce its colonial claim after the Second World War.
The conflict surrounding the islands was renewed in 2010 as activists landed on the islands with Taiwanese and Chinese flags, prompting a small spat. The situation has recently come to the forefront once again when Japan announced the purchase of the islands from private owners. Taiwanese fishing boats are protesting by sailing to the islands where they will surely encounter the Japanese coast guard and/or the Chinese surveillance ships that have recently been in the area.
The Japanese stake in the conflict is high. Island disputes cover the continent as South East Asian countries and China have claims over a number of islands in the South China Sea. Closer to home, the Japanese continue to argue with South Korea over the Takeshim/Dokdo Islands. The south end of the Sea of Okhotsk brings another issue over the Kuril Islands with Russia. The secession of the Diaoyu/Senkaku can too easily have massive repercussion for other Japanese claims.
Territorial issues aside, the commercial value of the islands is a motivating factor for the nations and regions involved in the dispute. The location shadows important shipping lanes in the East China Sea. Aside from fishing rights, there are nearby Chunxiao gas fields as well as the potential discovery of new fields in the immediate vicinity.
The United States also has something at stake in this ongoing political conundrum. After the Second World War, a battered Japan renounced its claims to many islands including Taiwan in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. In 1971, the islands at the centre of the conflict were returned to Japan under the Okinawa reversion deal as the US had held them in trust. The Chinese claim this document to be illegitimate, although they did not protest at the time.
The mutual security treaty, part of the Treaty of San Francisco, means that should there be military engagement, the US would be obligated to defend its ally. The fact that they have stayed silent over the issue is evidence that they do not want to damage their relationship with China, a major trading partner.
Anti-Americanism in the Middle East and North Africa are surely enough to deter getting involved in a geopolitical region where they have not enjoyed much success in the post WWII era. The re-election campaign of Obama cannot be sacrificed, as a shift in foreign policy back to Asia could have a negative effect.
Leadership changes are also nigh in Japan as an election looms, as well as in China where the Communist Party will welcome a new leader in October. Xi Jinping, the most likely leader to take on Chinese leadership, can use this conflict as a political tool to assert his power and mandate depending on his agenda. Current Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has a looming election to think about, and so a defeat over the island saga will surely seal his fate as he is already behind in the polls.
Mass anti-Japanese demonstrations have occurred all over China; damage to Japanese property has been a bi-product of the Chinese government allowing these demonstrations to occur. In a country that is known for being heavy handed with political opposition and protests in general, the allowance for mass gatherings in the streets can be seen as a step for the people of China, who lack a democratic voice.
The deteriorating relationship between the second and third largest economies in the world, who exchanged $340 billion last year, will have larger implications for both parties. The stagnation of the US economy and the uncertainty of Europe are global issues, and both of these ‘Asian Tigers’ would not want to add themselves to the list of suffering economies. It is in both countries’ interests to resolve this situation before it further damages their historically turbulent relationship or risks destabilizing a strong economic region. That being said, one can never question the resolve of any government committed to protecting a national identity in a historically troubled region.