Japan and China’s historic dispute regarding ownership of a chain of islands in the East China Sea has recently resurfaced.
The islands, referred to as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, began to be a source of tension in the 1970’s when oil resources were discovered in the area. They are close to a continental shelf, a shallow formation along the coast of a landmass that can go deeper into the ocean, making it easier to extract natural resources.
“The islands appear [culturally]to be much more connected to the Asian mainland. Historically, however, Japanese have a claim that is documented across time,” said Alex Papadopoulos, a geopolitics professor at DePaul. “20th century Japanese expansion meant that the archipelago islands belonged to imperial Japan; this imperial reach expanded to East Asia. After the defeat of Japan [in WWII], some sovereignty issues have not been resolved.”
In the late 20th century, with a great desire for oil and gas, even the smallest islands become the biggest prize,” said Papadopoulos.
In early September the Japanese government sought to buy three of the five islands from Japanese businessman Kunioki Kurihara who had previously rented them to the state. Both the government and people of China reacted angrily to the news.
Anti-Japanese protests, which have turned violent at times, broke out, and the Chinese government did little to control them. Protesters burnt Japanese flags, attacked Japanese businesses and boycotted Japanese goods.
“The sign of the Japanese moving forward resonates the past with China’s experiences in World War II, especially with those who had relatives die because of it,” said Associate Professor Eugene Beiriger. “From the Chinese point of view, it looks like Japanese imperialism all over again.”
Protests, albeit smaller in size, also erupted in Japan in order to send a message to China that they are the ones invading Japanese territory. Activists have even placed gone to the islands and marked them with Japanese flags to show their determination.
“The conflict has a lot to do with domestic politics in both countries,” said Phillip Stalley, a political science professor at DePaul who specializes in Chinese politics. “China is not only signaling to Japan their resolve and domestic claim, but also strong feelings of nationalism for the nation. The state wants to create a rally ’round the flag effect with the Communist party and showcase the strength of the government.”
Protests in both countries seem to be winding down, which is good for economic and trade relations. Due to the protests, some of Japan’s biggest firms suspended operations in China, which can have a major impact on their economic growth if the issue is not resolved shortly. “I would expect the issue to quiet down over the next week, said Stalley. “Back in 2005, a similar situation occurred. China allowed the protesting to go on for a week, but then proceeded to shut it down.”
There has been dispute over whether the United States would intervene in the issue, however in an interview with BBC, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made it clear that United States does not want to be dragged into a crisis.
“Our goal is to make sure that no dispute or misunderstanding escalates into unwanted tensions or a conflict,” said Panetta, who met with both Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimonto and then China’s future leader Xi Jinpig as part of a weeklong tour of Asia.
The United States continues to walk a fine line between Japan and China. The former is a strong ally while the later plays a huge role in the U.S. economy.
“It is in the best interest of all involved to establish a peaceful resolution,” said Beiriger. ‘What we do not need is ‘tough-line’ rhetoric against China, which can lead to hard-lined stances from both sides and a conflict that we do not need to interfere in.”