The Senkaku Islands Conflict

As with roommate conflicts, sibling squabbles, and any kind of interpersonal relationships, it seems natural that neighboring countries may, over time, run into a scuffle or two. However, the conflict between disputed area of land between China and Japan, known as the Diao Yu Dao (Diao Yu Islands) in China and the Senkaku Islands in Japan, seems to take a label that exceeds “scuffle.” The disputed islands, a source of conflict for the two countries, are located in the East China Sea. Tensions have recently heightened over the land due to the recent discovery of petroleum and of other highly valuable resources, making compromise and peace between the two nations even more difficult to achieve. In fact, the conflict dates back so far that the history of the islands and of the conflict itself significantly differ in the eyes of both countries. U.S. intervention on the issue appears to lean on the Japanese side, especially in light of new declarations made by Trump. In fact, it seems more and more likely that, with the change in presidency, the U.S. will take a more decisive stance on siding with the Japanese. However, whether this will escalate the conflict or not is unclear.

On the Chinese side of the conflict is the claim that China has historically owned the islands, and that Japan only announced its claim to the islands after useful petroleum resources had been discovered. Chinese news highlights the negative effects that aggressive Japanese tactics have had on its commoners: a CCTV broadcast posted to the internet in August 2017 shows an alleged Japanese misunderstanding over Chinese fishing boats sent nearby the islands, pointing to a subsequent increase in Japanese naval power as a result. In the second half of the broadcast, Chinese experts on the issue explain to the audience that the Japanese move to shore up weaponry is a precautionary tactic and a response to possible new conflict, should the U.S. and its new president choose to take a more definite stance on the issue. However, those experts believe that these new tensions will not lead to warfare between the nations.

A since archived article on declares the Chinese stance on the disputed land: the land was originally Chinese, and Japan secretly seized the islands after the 1895 Sino-Japanese war, claiming them to be neutral territory before seizure. China also claims that the land was supposed to have been returned through the conditions of the Cairo Declaration, the Treaty of Shimonoseki, Potsdam, and the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, but the U.S. assumed responsibility for the land without first consulting China, giving the land instead to Japan. Historical evidence listed on the same site dates back to 1403, when the Shun Feng Xiang Song, a compilation of records of ship routes written by Chinese officials, notes that a ship passed the “Diao Yu Dao,” and mentions it by name. The document is now stored in Oxford University. Another notable piece of evidence included on the site is the Shi Liu Qiu Lu, a map of Chinese territory from 1561 that included the Diao Yu Dao. While none of these are legal documents, the intention appears to demonstrate that the Chinese have been active on the island in the past, and have circumstantial claim to the land.

Interestingly, Japan also similarly claims the islands on the basis of historical ownership, and states that China only sought the islands after the reveal of their potential petroleum deposits and useful resources. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan declares that, “There is no doubt that the Senkaku Islands are clearly an inherent part of the territory of Japan, in light of historical facts and based upon international law.” According to the Ministry, the Japanese government has been consistently surveying the island since 1885 as its clear sole owner, with no Chinese claim being made until the 1970s, until “after a survey conducted by an agency of the United Nations in autumn of 1968 had indicated the possibility of the existence of petroleum resources on the East China Sea.” While the U.S. government gained administrative control over the islands as per Article 3 of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which stipulates that “the United States will have the right to exercise all and any powers of administration, legislation and jurisdiction over the territory and inhabitants of these islands,” Japan supposedly retained legal rights to the islands even during this period. It regained full authority of the Senkakus and other islands mentioned in the treaty in 1972. Tadashi Ikeda of The Diplomat corroborates these statements, adding that “China deliberately ignores [that] over a period of at least 10 years before the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, the evidence showed that the Senkaku were terra nullius, and not under the control of China’s Qing Dynasty.”

The U.S. position on this international conflict is clear: it has historically stood with and currently stands with Japan’s claim to the islands. In Article 5 of the U.S. and Japan Security Treaty, which was signed in the aftermath of World War II, and replaced the previous 1951 San Francisco Treaty, both countries agree that, “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under… Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger…” While the treaty never specifies whether the Senkaku Islands falls under this statement, Obama became the first person to include the islands in the treaty in 2014 when he stated on a Japanese state visit, “Our commitment to Japan’s security is absolute and article five…  covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku islands.” While he refused to take a stance on the official sovereignty of the islands, he vowed to protect Japan’s claim to the islands as the president. Trump then extended the position a step further by claiming to uphold Article 5 in regards to the islands without any confirmation on extension Obama’s previous neutral stance, leaving the topic ambiguous. This ambiguity has been speculated to have been a signal that the U.S. is now open to potential affirmation of Japanese sovereignty.

Conflict over the islands has dated back centuries without sparking true war, and may continue far into the future without the need for major battle. It seems that, while Trump seeks to side firmly with the Japanese, not much has happened in the recent past to show to either nation that he is committed to keeping his word. And while it is important for all nations involved to follow along, it appears that this open-ended conflict is scheduled to stretch along without any sign of resolute closure on the horizon[1] .

- Eva Gu