The Facts of the China-Japan Dispute over the Diaoyutais

Article excerpt

Tensions are rising in the dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyutai Islands - five tiny islands and three rocks covering a mere 7 square kilometers in the East China Sea.

It is a pity that this is happening, especially when Chinese-Japanese economic ties have reached a new level since the end of last year with the two countries agreeing to use their respective currencies in their bilateral trade, instead of the U.S. dollar.

To de-escalate tensions, Japan should make the first move. It was the Japanese government's purchase of three of the islands from the Kurihara family on Sept. 11 that ignited the present crisis. That decision should be rescinded immediately.

In fact, Japan has been upping the ante on the Diaoyutais - which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands - for some time now. One may recall that on Sept. 7, 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat collided accidentally with a Japanese patrol vessel near the Diaoyutais, the captain and crew of the Chinese boat were detained by the Japanese Coast Guard for a few days.

Though they were all released in the end, the incident revealed a new toughness on the part of the Japanese. The Chinese have been reacting to this and other such incidents.

What explains this new toughness? Some analysts attribute it partly to the growth of the political Right in Japanese politics. Japanese economic stagnation for more than two decades and China's success in replacing Japan as the world's second most important economy have increased the influence of conservative nationalist forces in the country who are now targeting China. Impending elections within the ruling Democratic Party and the forthcoming General Election have also widened the berth for conservative politics.

It is also not a coincidence that the Japanese Right has become more vocal - especially vis-a-vis China - at a time when the United States is seeking to re-assert its presence and its power in the Asia-Pacific region. In the last couple of years, U.S. political and military officials have on a number of occasions underscored the significance of U.S.-Japan security ties. Even on the Diaoyutais dispute, the U.S. government, while professing to remain neutral, has through the Pentagon made it clear that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty would come into force in the event of a military conflict between Japan and China. This stance has to be viewed in the larger context of the U.S.' active military alignment with the Philippines in its recent clash with China over the Huangyan Island in the South China Sea and its support for Vietnam in its longstanding tiff with China over parts of the Spratly Islands and the Paracels.

For both Japan and the U.S. there may also be other reasons why the Diaoyutai Islands are important. In 1968-69, a United Nations agency, it is reported, discovered potential oil and gas reserves near the Diaoyutais. The U.S. military, it is not widely known, also uses one of the five islands - Kuba - as a practice range for aircraft bombing.

Whatever the reasons for holding on to the Diaoyutais, Japan's claim to ownership is weak. …