A Solution for the Conflict in the East China Sea

The disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea

By Matt Propper

A group of three seemingly inconsequential uninhabited islands and five large rocks sit in the East China Sea between Japan, China, and Taiwan. However, inconsequential and signficant to global stability they are not. On the contrary, they have oil and natural gas deposits, are surrounded by an abundance of fish, but most importantly are locked in a bitter ownership dispute that threatens the stability of the entire region, indeed, the whole world. These islands have a long history of loosely-worded treaties, ambiguous claims, multiple post-war declarations, and endless provocations. Now, the islands lie at the center of a potentially explosive dispute between the world’s second and third largest economies. If cooler heads do not prevail, the world’s next large crisis will be in East Asia. In order to avoid a major regional conflict with global implications should hostile rhetoric become real conflict, an oil revenue sharing and fishing rights treaty should be negotiated and only the United States has the ability to facilitate such an arrangement.

China calls the land the Diaoyu islands and claims that its ownership of the territory traces back to the Ming Dynasty. Japan, on the other hand, named the islands Senkaku after it annexed them in 1895 following its victory over China in the first Sino-Japanese war. The dispute was revived after the axis’ defeat in World War II when Japan was forced to relinquish control of various islands. China believed that the islands should be included in the land returned to their control. Instead, the islands were placed under U.S. jurisdiction.1 The United States controlled the islands until 1971 when it returned them to Japan under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement. After the signing of the agreement, a number of anti-Japanese protests broke out in China and Taiwan. However, seven years later Japan and China signed the 1978 Japan-China Peace and Friendship Treaty, which stated that there will be “relations of perpetual peace and friendship between the two countries.”2 The agreement managed to keep both sides tranquil until 1996 when the right-wing Japanese Youth Association landed on one of the islets and built a lighthouse.3 Since 1996, protests and demonstrations have been ongoing in China, Japan, and Taiwan. Recently, after the Japanese Government bought the islands from private Japnese owners, protesters in China threw objects at the Japanese embassy in Beijing, Japanese restaurants, Japanese cars, and other Japanese businesses.

In today’s age of rapid consumption and gross overpopulation, the competition to exploit natural resources is ruthless. If islands exist with rich natural resources surrounded by good fishing water, it makes for an enticing location for all three East Asian countries. Mix that with China, Japan, and Taiwan’s longstanding belief that the islands belong to each of them and the situation becomes volatile. Both China and Japan have military ships circulating the islands and one mistake- one shot fired- could trigger a dangerous confrontation that would rattle the entire region, if not the world. Moreover, the United States would be pulled directly into the hostilities because of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. The treaty states that if either Japan’s or the United State’s territory is attacked, the other country will “act to meet the common danger.”4 Once the United States is pulled into the conflict, other major global powers will feel the need to get involved to maintain influence in a developing region.

As the United States pursues its “shift to the Pacific,” it should focus not only on countering China’s influence, but also on diffusing this potentially incendiary quarrel. It should take the lead on trying to initiate talks by appointing a special envoy to meet with representatives from both sides individually. Once talks are proceeding towards a deal, President Barack Obama should call a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. Japanese and Chinese leaders have both expressed support for a peaceful approach to the issue, but a reliable third party is lacking. The goal of the talks should not be to solve this deep-rooted conflict, but to calm the situation through negotiation by presenting practical and face-saving solutions that serve all interests. The question of the islands’ sovereignty should be postponed. The negotiations should instead begin by offering the parties a way to benefit economically from the islands. The most feasible solution is an agreement between the two countries to evenly distribute revenue derived from the islands’ natural gas and rich fishing resources.

While the dispute over these islands is a crisis, both China and Japan have more pressing problems and neither side wants war. Intervention by the United States may not be able to broker a final solution, but it could resolve the militant nationalism that threatens global stability, while bringing both countries economic benefit.

1 “Q&A: China-Japan islands row,” CNN. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11341139, accessed on August 15, 2013.

2 “Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between Japan and the People’s Republic of China,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/china/treaty78.html, accessed on August 12, 2013.

Chloe Lai. “Protesters Head for Diaoyu Islands,” South China Morning Post. http://www.scmp.com/article/419436/protesters-head-diaoyu-islands, accessed on August 15, 2013.

4 “Japan-U.S. Security Treaty,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/n-america/us/q&a/ref/1.html, accessed on August 15, 2013.

Photo Credit: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/sep/05/japan-china-disputed-islands