Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands

Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands
There are two main parties and a smaller party to this dispute: China, Japan, and Taiwan. The dispute revolves around control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are a group of 5 islands and 3 rocky outcroppings that are around 3mi2 of land.[i] While small, these islands are important to all the parties involved because of what they contain in and below the waters around them. Surveys indicate massive supplies of untapped oil in the range of 60-100 million barrels, 1-2 trillion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas, coal and huge fishing areas.[ii] Additionally, the islands are important due to their position along strategic shipping lanes, and whoever controls them would be in an advantageous position, and the precedent to the resolution of the dispute would set for other disputes in the region.[iii]


China claims ownership over the Diaoyus, and considers them one of its core national interests.[iv] The Chinese back up their claim by arguing that Chinese sea voyagers used the islands in the 1300s.[v] They claim the Japanese “discovered” them much later in 1885, stole them from China in 1895 at the end of the First Sino-Japanese War, and that China rightly deserves them back under the Cairo and Potsdam conferences that say that the axis powers had to renounce any and all territories “taken by violence and greed.”[vi] For China, the islands controlled by Japan are one of many ways that Japan hinders Chinese access to the Pacific.[vii]

This dispute is the keystone in the wider Sino-Japanese tensions that have been present since the 1890s. 78% Of Chinese citizens view Japan unfavorably.[viii] The Chinese work to keep the memory of Japanese atrocities in the 1930s and 1940s alive, dedicating space in museums to educating people about the history of that period.[ix] In a time when Xi Jinping is focused on “rejuvenation,” taking the islands back from a former aggressor is a major priority and would be a propaganda coup.[x]


Japan also claims ownership over the islands, calling them Senkaku. Japan backs up its claims by arguing that the islands were uninhabited in 1884 when they discovered them.[xi] They further claim that the islands were terra nullius (nobody’s land) in 1895 when they incorporated them[xii] and did not fall under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the war with China.[xiii]

Japan views the Senkakus and Ryukyus as a defensive barrier against invasions of the Japanese homeland, and “Tokyo intends to hold on to them by all means necessary.”[xiv]  This has become especially pertinent due to Japan’s views of China. The Sino-Japanese relationship is complicated by Japan’s colonial history towards China. Japan is worried that a militarily powerful China is out to “avenge the affronts of the 1930s.”[xv] 88% of Japanese citizens have a negative view of China.[xvi]


The final disputant is Taiwan, which also views the islands as part of their historical territory and call them Diaoyutai.[xvii] China has said that it would be pleased if Taiwan gained possession of the islands since “Taiwan is part of China anyway.”[xviii] However, Taiwan and Japan do not have nearly as contentious of a relationship. The Taiwanese and Japanese militaries have observed each other many times, and in 2006 when the Taiwanese conducted naval exercises in Taiwanese waters near the islands, the Japanese government made no objection and sent its own ships to observe.[xix] Taiwan and Japan both share frustrations about China regarding the dispute, with Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou saying during his tenure that, “China doesn’t want to sit at the table with Japan and Taiwan.”[xx]


[i] Jean-Marc F. Blanchard, “The U. S. Role in the Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, 1945-1971,” The China Quarterly, no. 161 (March 2000): 95,

[ii] Joel Brinkley, “Conflicting Claims: China, Japan, Taiwan on Edge,” World Affairs 176, no. 5 (January/February 2014): 55-6,

[iii]Blanchard, “The U.S. Role in the Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, 1945-1971, 122.

[iv] Steinberg and O’Hanlon, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, 36.

[v] James Manicom, “The Collapse of Cooperation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands,” in Bridging Troubled Waters (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2014), 44,

[vi] Blanchard, “The U.S. Role in the Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, 1945-1971, 101.

[vii] Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, 55.

[viii] “China’s Maritime Disputes,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed June 25, 2017,!/p31345.

[ix] Rachman, Easternization, 49-50.

[x] Elizabeth C. Economy, “China’s Imperial President: Xi Jinping Tightens His Grip,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 6 (November/December 2014): 80.

[xi] Blanchard, “The U.S. Role in the Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, 1945-1971, 101-2.

[xii] Manicom, “The Collapse of Cooperation,” 44.

[xiii] Blanchard, “The U.S. Role in the Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, 1945-1971, 102.

[xiv] Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, 211.

[xv] Rachman, Easternization, 90.

[xvi] “China’s Maritime Disputes.”

[xvii] Brinkley, “Conflicting Claims,” 56.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Bridges and Chan, “Looking North,” 589-90.

[xx] Brinkley, “Conflicting Claims,” 58.

1945 – World War II ends

The surrender of Japan to the Allies ended its imperial period, and the United States took over control of the Senkakus.[i]

1960 – U.S-Japan security treaty signed

This treaty obliged the United States to defend Japan if it was attacked. [ii]

1968 – Official report by the Committee for the Coordination of Joint Prospecting for Mineral Resources in Asian Offshore Areas is released:

The report indicated the possibility of large energy deposits under the East China Sea, underscoring the islands’ importance.[iii]

1970 – Japanese actions against Taiwan

Japan asserted its authority against Taiwan and its claims to the islands, issuing a declaration of sovereignty on September 12th, claiming Taiwan’s oil concessions were illegal, removing Taiwanese flags planted in the islands and using their coast guard to turn away Taiwanese fishermen.[iv]

1972 – Japan regains the Senkakus

The U.S. formally returned the Senkaku and Ryukyu islands to Japan.[v] The caveat was that any claims against the islands before the U.S. took over would remain.[vi]

1978 – Chinese fishing armada incident

While Japan and China were ironing out their Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which would normalize relations between the countries, China sent an armada of 80 armed fishing boats to the islands to signal their displeasure at attempts within the Japanese Diet to derail the treaty.[vii] This became one of the key reasons why the dispute was shelved.[viii]

1978 – Lighthouse incident

In August, a Japanese nationalist group built a crude lighthouse on one of the islands.[ix]

1990 – Lighthouse protests

Japanese media reported that Japan was planning on recognizing the lighthouse as an official navigation marker, leading to a failed Taiwanese attempt to land on the islands drawing more protests from China and Taiwan; the Japanese agreed to move cautiously regarding the lighthouse.[x]

1992 – Chinese LTC

The Chinese passed their Law on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone (LTC), which claimed the islands as theirs; the Chinese, still fresh out of isolation from the Tiananmen Square Incident did not want to anger Japan and indicated that this law would not be a change in policy.[xi]

1996 – Japanese right wing group incidents

In the late summer and early fall, a right wing group planted Japanese flags on the islands, and when activists planted Taiwanese and Chinese flags, the flags were removed, further drawing anger.[xii] In a string of events directly following this, China asserted that it had the right to “defend its territorial integrity,” the same Japanese right wing group returned to repair the lighthouse and a Chinese activist drowned near the islands when Japanese maritime forces prevented the boats the activists were in from landing.[xiii] Major de-escalation occurred in October with Japan stating it would not recognize the lighthouse and promises to better manage issues over the islands in the future.[xiv]

2005 – Japanese controls the Senkakus

In February, Japan took formal possession of the islands, triggering major anti-Japanese protests in China.[xv]

2010 – Fishing boat collision

A Chinese fishing boat collided with 2 Japanese Coast Guard ships near the islands, with the captain being held for weeks, massive, sometimes-violent protests breaking out in China and China suspending the export of rare earth metals to Japan.[xvi]

2012 – Formal nationalization of the islands

The Japanese formally nationalized the islands,[xvii] with another round of large anti-Japanese protests and riots occurring in China.[xviii] Around $120 million was lost by Japanese businesses as a result of the riots.[xix]

Late 2012-early 2013 – Chinese violations of Japanese airspace and military tensions             Chinese military aircraft entered Japanese airspace for the first time in decades, and in February 2013, a Chinese naval vessel “painted a Japanese naval vessel with a fire-control radar.”[xx]

2013 – Chinese announces its Air Defense Identification Zone

The November announcement of the ADIZ, which provocatively encompasses the Senkakus, as well as a bit of South Korean territory, led to American, Japanese and South Korean military aircraft flying through the area on patrols in response.[xxi]

2016 – Chinese escalation of tensions

China sent a massive fleet of fishing boats escorted by coast guard ships into the area, as well as military vessels and aircraft, drastically hurting relations.[xxii]


[i] Blanchard, “The U.S. Role in the Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, 1945-1971, 102.

[ii] Ibid., 96.

[iii] Ibid., 98.

[iv] Manicom, “The Collapse of Cooperation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands,” 44.

[v] Brinkley, “Conflicting Claims,” 58.

[vi] Blanchard, “The U.S. Role in the Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, 1945-1971, 120.

[vii] Manicom, “The Collapse of Cooperation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands,” 45.

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Ibid., 46.

[x] Blanchard, “The U.S. Role in the Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, 1945-1971,” 99-100.

[xi] Manicom, “The Collapse of Cooperation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands,” 48-9.

[xii] Blanchard, “The U.S. Role in the Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, 1945-1971,” 100.

[xiii] Manicom, “The Collapse of Cooperation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands,” 51-2.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid., 58.

[xvi] Ibid., 56.

[xvii] Ibid., 57.

[xviii] Rachman, Easternization, 36.

[xix] Richard Katz, “Mutual Assured Production: Why Trade Will Limit Conflict Between China and Japan,” Foreign Affairs 92, no. 4 (July/August 2013): 19,

[xx] Ibid., 54.

[xxi] “China’s Maritime Disputes.”

[xxii] Jennifer Lind, “Asia’s Other Revisionist Power: Why U.S. Grand Strategy Unnerves China,” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 2 (March/April 2017): 76,

There have been multiple meetings and mediation attempts over the course of the dispute.

1970 – Trilateral talks between China, Japan and Taiwan

Mediation attempts over the islands occurred after the report describing the economic potential of the area around the islands was released. The talks broke down over Chinese insistence of sovereignty and accusations that Japan and Taiwan were jointly working to steal Chinese resources.[i]

1978 – Negotiations between Japan and China

Negotiations between the two countries to reach the Treaty of Peace and Friendship occurred. The negotiations were successful in the Treaty of Peace and Friendship for multiple reasons; one was the Deng Xiaoping, a key leader of the Chinese Communist Party’s Modus Vivendi, which shelved the dispute for later generations and allowed both sides to save face.[ii] The other was the desire in both countries for normal relations, which were achieved through the treaty.

2013 – Negotiations between Japan and Taiwan

The negotiations occurred over fishing rights and they were successful, with Japan and Taiwan reaching an agreement over fishing rights around the islands, mainly due to the fact that Taiwan and Japan needed each other to counter China, and resolving this issue would go a long way in firming up their relations.[iii]

2014 – Talks between the leader and two negotiating teams

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping met after a bitter two years of tensions between the countries, with talks focusing on the islands tensions.[iv] The talks were successful and the consensus reached between the countries allowed for a restoration of relations and both sides acknowledged that different positions on the islands exist, and promised to use dialogue and consultation to prevent the situation from boiling over in the future.[v] The talks were a success predominantly due to the economic ramifications of poor relations harming both countries.[vi]

Through the dispute, both sides have continued to manage the tensions, shown by the foreign ministries still holding meetings even in 2012 at the height of tensions.[vii] However, the importance of the islands makes the ideational costs of compromise rise.[viii]


[i] Manicom, “The Collapse of Cooperation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands,” 44.

[ii] Ibid., 46.

[iii] Brinkley, “Conflicting Claims,” 59-60.

[iv] Leika Kihara and Sui-Lee Wee, “China’s Xi, Japan’s Abe hold landmark meeting,” Reuters, last modified November 10, 2014,

[v] Sharon Tiezzi, “A China-Japan Breakthrough: A Primer on Their 4 Point Consensus,” The Diplomat, last modified November 7, 2014,

[vi] Kihara and Lee, “China’s Xi, Japan’s Abe hold landmark meeting.”

[vii] Manicom, ” The Collapse of Cooperation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands,” 59.

[viii] Ibid., 60.

The situation in the East China Sea is currently tense, with actions such as the ADIZ continuing to heighten the chance of a military clash.[i] Beijing can ramp up the pressure and turn it into an ultimatum whenever it chooses,[ii] contributing to Japan’s strengthening its defenses in response to growing tensions.[iii] Shinzo Abe is trying to revise the Japanese constitution, which in Article 9 renounces Japan’s right to wage war, in preparation for a potential showdown.[iv] The frequency of dangerous interactions between the Chinese and Japanese is steadily growing each year, especially the number of scrambles by Japanese fighters.[v]

2016: Unusual amount of Chinese ship incursions

While around 7-12 ships enter Japan’s territorial sea each month, August saw an unusually high 23 ship incursions.[vi] Recently, the Chinese ships entering the area have been larger, better armed and have stayed in the area longer than in the past.[vii] This hints at an increase in Chinese assertiveness.

2017 – U.S. reaffirmation of Article V of the US-Japan Security Treaty

In February, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis reaffirmed that the U.S. considers the Senkakus to fall under the protection of Article 5, and that the U.S. would come to Japan’s defense over an attack on the islands, to which China responded negatively.[viii] Immediately following this, 3 Chinese Coast Guard ships entered the waters near the islands, which many view as a thinly veiled response to Mattis’ comments.[ix]

2017 – Japanese Minister of Defense announces record number of scrambles
            In the fiscal year ending on March 31st, there were 1,168 scrambles in response to Chinese incursions.[x] Each time, a tension-fuelled dance occurs where the Japanese Foreign Ministry complains to the Chinese embassy in Tokyo and the Japanese embassy in Beijing complains to the Chinese government, and then nothing really changes.[xi]

2017 – Chinese incursion into the islands

In early May, four Chinese ships sailed into the islands.[xii]

2017 – Chinese drone enters Japanese territory

On May 18th, four coast guard ships, accompanied by a drone, entered territory claimed by Japan, marking the first time a drone has been used.[xiii]

As seen by the uptick in Chinese incursions, the dispute shows no sign of calming down anytime soon.


[i] Steinberg and O’Hanlon, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, 143.

[ii] Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, 211.

[iii] Kaplan, Earning the Rockies, 155.

[iv] Rachman, Easternization, 94.

[v] “Playing Chicken in the East China Sea,” Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, last modified April 28, 2017,

[vi] “Playing Chicken in the East China Sea.”

[vii] “Playing Chicken in the East China Sea.”

[viii] . Brad Lendon, “Chinese ships sail near disputed Japanese islands,” CNN, last modified

February 7, 2017,


[ix] Ibid.

[x] Yoko Wakatsuki and Junko Ogura, “Japan: China ‘escalating’ tensions over disputed islands,” CNN, last modified May 19, 2017,

[xi] Elizabeth Shim, “Chinese Coast Guard Boats Sail Near Japan’s Okinawa, Senkaku Islands,” UPI, last modified May 8, 2017,

[xii] Shim, ” Chinese Coast Guard Boats Sail Near Japan’s Okinawa, Senkaku Islands.”

[xiii] Wakatsuki and Ogura, ” Japan: China ‘escalating’ tensions over disputed islands.”

There are three main stakeholders in this dispute: the United States, South Korea and the states of Southeast Asia.           

United States:

The main stakeholder is the United States. For the United States, Japan is a check on China’s rise. There are around 50,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan and countless warships.[i]  Even more than with Taiwan, the United States is committed to the defense of Japan. It is this commitment that has allowed Japan to develop peacefully for the past few decades.[ii] This also requires the United States to watch the situation over the islands very closely, and it has a stake in a peaceful resolution for the islands since a violent resolution would likely mean war with China. It also cannot afford to look weak, for fear of losing influence in the region.[iii]

China has a very negative opinion of the U.S. presence in Japan. Many in China believe that the U.S. views Japan as an unsinkable aircraft carrier, much like Taiwan, and China will never view the U.S. as unbiased due to its treaty with Japan.[iv]         

South Korea:

South Korea’s stake in the relationship is threefold. First, South Korea has multiple island disputes with Japan, notably over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, which South Korea controls but Japan claims.[v] How the Senkaku dispute is resolved could affect the resolution of South Korea’s own disputes. Second, South Korea’s geography gives it an obvious stake. Located between China and Japan, South Korea would be adversely affected by a war between the two. Finally, South Korea’s economy would be adversely affected by a crisis or war over the islands. The islands lie along the shipping route to South Korea. If the waters through which ships to the country pass, South Korea’s economy could suffer immensely. Additionally, South Korea and China, and to a lesser extent Japan, are major trading partners. South Korea has a strong interest in peaceful relations between the two larger states.

States of Southeast Asia:

Many of the states have disputes with China that mirror the Senkaku dispute. The states have reason to believe that how China acts in regard to the Senkakus will reflect how it will act in their disputes. Japan understands this and in 2013 made a major push to develop closer relations with ASEAN members.[vi] In 2014, Japan sent Vietnam, an ASEAN member with major tensions with China 6 patrol vessels in hopes of furthering better relations.[vii] The states of this region must watch the unfolding situation very carefully.


[i] Rachman, Easternization, 86-7.

[ii] Steinberg and O’Hanlon, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, 20.

[iii] Ibid., 143.

[iv] Rachman, Easternization, 87.

[v] Ibid., 96.

[vi] “China’s Maritime Disputes.”

[vii] Rachman, Easternization, 113-114.

While the situation surrounding the islands is tense and while there will occasionally be escalations, the likelihood of a major crisis or war is low. The economies of the two countries are tied to the point where the relationship is critical to the wellbeing of both economies.[i] The effect this has had on the dispute can be seen by the reticence of both governments to escalate the situation to the point of no return in 2012.[ii] This is one of two main reasons why a conflict will not break out. The second reason is the security blanket provided by the US. Since the U.S. guarantees the safety of the islands, China is very unlikely to push the situation to the point where it comes to blows with the U.S. As long as the U.S. is invested, the situation will likely continue to represent the ebb and flow pattern it has in the past.


While there is no easy solution to the conflict, a recommendation would be to continue to strengthen the economic links between Japan and China. Richard Katz, a well-known analyst of Japan’s economy has argued that an economic form of mutually assured destruction has helped preserve the status quo between the countries, stating, “China needs to buy Japanese goods as much as Japan needs to sell them.”[iii] Continuing to promote a strengthening of economic ties would create a situation where economic disruptions due to political incident are undesirable.[iv]

While Japan should continue to be wary about becoming overly dependent on China, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty provides Japan with some room for maneuver should China try to use its economic clout to militarily leverage Japan. Additionally, Japan has leverage over China by the nature of Japan being China’s largest source of imports, leaving the Chinese exports vulnerable to collapse should Japan restrict imports.[v]

A key area that would be important to strengthen would be the area of joint development of resources in the East China Sea, namely gas and oil. An agreement was reached in June 2008 after 4 years of negotiations regarding the Chunxiao Gas dispute.[vi] The agreement created a joint development zone in the sea.[vii] China and Japan working to expand this zone would certainly further the economic ties, as well as reduce the likelihood of accidental clashes in the drilling areas. The United States and South Korea would be smart to work with China and Japan as third parties to guarantee these developments since both countries have a stake in preserving stability in the region, which further joint development would help achieve.

Additionally, Chinese and Japanese defense officials have met to look at ways of reducing accidental clashes in the East China Sea. [viii] It is important that these meeting continually occur until something resembling a code of conduct emerges for dealing with the dispute.


[i] Martin Fackler and Ian Johnson, “Sleepy Islands and a Smoldering Dispute,” The New York Times, last modified September 20, 2012,

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Katz, “Mutually Assured Production,” 18.

[iv] Stephen R. Nagy, “Territorial Disputes, Trade and Diplomacy: Examining the repercussions of the Sino-Japanese territorial dispute for bilateral trade,” China Perspectives, no. 4 (2013): 56,

[v] Katz, “Mutually Assured Production,” 22.

[vi] James Manicom, “Sino-Japanese Cooperation in the East China Sea: Limitations and Prospects,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 30, no. 3 (December 2008): 456-462,

[vii] Ibid., 467.

[viii] Katz, “Mutually Assured Production,” 18.

China and Japan held talks on June 29, 2017 discussing how to prevent unintended clashes in the East China Sea, including the implementation of a hotline.[i]

On July 8th, Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the G20 to discuss a range of topics, focusing on economic cooperation and agreed to strengthen direct talks between the top leadership of both countries.[ii]


[i] “Japan, China Start Talks to Prevent Accidental Clashes in East China Sea, Disputed Isles,” The Japan Times, last modified June 29, 2017,

[ii] “Abe, Xi in Accord on Trade Project but Differ over North Korea,” The Asahi Shimbun, last modified July 9, 2017,

-The Organization for Economic Complexity’s Visualizations tab (

This site allows the user to see the imports, exports and economic relations of countries; in this case, the user can see the economic links between the Chinese and the Japanese, but can also be used for China-South Korea, China-North Korea, North Korea-South Korea, etc.

-The Japan-U.S. Security Treaty (

Located on Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website, the treaty allows the reader to read the entire security treaty that has been at the heart of U.S.-Japanese relations for decades.

-“Japan is Back” by Jonathan Tepperman, Foreign Affairs‘ Vol. 92, No. 4 (July/August 2013).

The managing editor of Foreign Affairs provides a transcript of the interview he had with Japanese PM 2013 and looks at Abe’s controversies about Japan’s war record as well as the Senkakus dispute. It is important to note that the interview took place in the midst of the 2012-2014 tensions.

-The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (

This site offers the reader multiple articles and analyses of the East China Sea tensions, including looks at the energy competition.

-“The East China Sea Dispute: Context, Claims, issues, and Possible Solutions” by Mark J. Valencia, Asian Perspective, Vol. 31, No. 1 (2007).

An internationally acclaimed maritime policy analyst provides the reader with an extensive summary of the tensions between China and Japan and the causes of them, namely over the Senkaku dispute, joint development issues and exclusive economic zone issues. Valencia goes on to offer a string of possible solutions to the tensions as well.

-The chapter titled “Changes in China-Japan Relations and East Asian Security” by Zhang Tuosheng in The Architecture of Security in the Asia-Pacific, edited by Ron Huisken.

A Senior Fellow at the China Institute for International Strategic Studies explores the Sino-Japanese relationship up through 2009, places it in a positive light, and makes recommendations for further improvement.