For hundreds of years, if not thousand, Japan has played a vital role in geopolitics. Located just off the coast of mainland East Asia, Japan has been subtly affected by their neighbors and their affairs. A nation with a longstanding history of military dominance and conquest, especially under the Japanese Empire, brings the longstanding tensions of the region into limelight. It will not be wrong to say, the rehabilitation of Japan after the defeat of Japanese empire in World War II changed Japan completely. The dissolution of communism in the Soviet Union, emergence of communist China, the Korean War, the Vietnam conflict, along with the formation of ASEAN severely changed the geopolitical layout of East and Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the disintegration of the massive Japanese empire which later fell into the hands of the victors left many unsolved questions which later turned into territorial disputes , one such example if the Senkaku Islands, which is currently being claimed by Japan and China.
Japan and other US allies that are usually dependent on US military and tactical support will have to develop their own plan of actions in countering Chinese influence.
The economic growth experienced by Japan, China, along with the Four Asian Tigers of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan in the latter half of the 20th century has evolved power politics in the region. Stationed in Japan is the United States Seventh Fleet, which is a very powerful fleet, deployed by the US to defend its allies, notably the Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Although, recent budgetary restrictions and sudden change in geopolitics has tightened US capabilities in the region, especially in countering Chinese ambitions. Hence, Japan and other US allies that are usually dependent on US military and tactical support will have to develop their own plan of actions in countering Chinese influence.
Japan is an island nation comprising a total of 6,852 islands, with regions significant to naval expansion as the island nation aims to maintain expansion around the regions. Out of many significant regions, one such region is the East China Sea, which is a marginal sea passing mainland China in the west, Japan and its Ryukyu islands in the east, Taiwan in the south, and Korea to the north which then connects with the Yellow Sea. It covers 1,250,000 square kilometers, and has historical importance to all the regions around it. It has a vast fishing potential, important trade routes, and recently discovered natural gas fields. For nations deprived of energy such as Japan and China due to their limited reserves, the recent discovery of gas fields around the Senkaku islands has created this “often talked” discussion into a worldwide agenda. Thus all of the legal, historical, and territorial explanations are given to claim this region, making it a center point of tensions between China and Japan.
The Senkaku Islands
These Islands are a small chain of uninhabited islands located in the East China Sea and are currently being contested by Japan, the People’s Republic of China, along with The Republic of China (Taiwan). These islands are known differently by these claimants. To Japan they are known as Senkaku Islands, Chinese call them the Diaoyu Islands, while Taiwanese know them as Tiaoyutai Islands. These islands however are not every useful nor they have any natural resource to harness; they are just five uninhabited islands and three barren rocks ranging from 800 square meters and 4.32 square kilometers. These islands are very close to shipping lanes, fishing grounds, and recently discovered energy supplies, giving the claimant a tactical advantage in East Asia.
The question of “legality” turned to a question of “sovereignty” when People’s Republic of China discovered an oil seabed in 1951.
Inspite of knowing the fact that these islands are uninhabited, nations have used all available resources from historical to legal and territorial to justify their claims on these islands and enjoy additional economic and security benefits.
Japan claims that these islands are all part of Okinawa which broke apart after a massive tsunami during the ice age. The southern part of Japan is the Ryukyu Islands, a long chain of islands that stretches to almost 1000 kilometers. In the wake of Meiji Restoration in 1879, the Japanese government occupied the territories of Ryukyu Kingdom and restored its status with the Okinawa province; the Senkaku islands then became the last line of defense between the Qing dynasty of China and Japanese government.
However, during the First Sino Japanese War, Japan occupied the islands after finding no evidence of Qing empire presence in the region. With crushing defeat in war, Chinese empire had more to lose. The Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed in April 1895, Formosa (Taiwan) and all the islands incorporated with it were handed over to Japan. Although it is still unclear whether Senkaku islands were part of Taiwan or not, Japanese historians say otherwise. The treaty was then overlapped with the Treaty of San Francisco, which was signed in 1951 little after Japanese surrender. The treaty dismissed Japanese control over the islands along with imperial possessions in Formosa and islands associated with it. However the treaty could not specify the actor in possession of these islands.
Additionally the treaty placed Ryukyu Islands under temporary US administration, which too included administration over Senkaku islands; Both China and Taiwan did not react at that time. In 1971 the Okinawa Reversion Agreement was signed between the US and the Japanese government which resulted in transferring the Ryukyu Island including the Senkaku Island back to Japanese administration. China formerly protested and condemned the actions of US administration stating it “unethical”. However US does not play any role under the sovereignty issue, although the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan requires US intervention on the side of Japan if Japan is so forced (or decides) to defend them.
Both Japan’s and China’s EEZ clash over 200 miles, as the East China Sea is just 360 nautical miles.
During her trip to Okinawa, as Secretary of Defence under Obama Administration,Hillary Clinton stated that the Senkaku islands fell under the US Japanese security agreement.
The question of “legality” turned to a question of “sovereignty” when People’s Republic of China discovered an oil seabed in 1951. Although, the gas field came under the oiling range of Chunxiao gas, which was one of the many in Xihu Trough region of China. Objectively the entire region falls under the China’s Exclusive Economic Zone, as gas production from other fields are quite closer to the China’s coast. The Chunxiao gas field, although technically in China’s EEZ, covers 3 to 4 miles setting up a median line between Japan’s and China’s EEZ. Tokyo is very concerned as Chinese excavation of the Chunxiao fields might cover the deep fields and enter into disputed territory, or Japan’s zone. All Tokyo wants is a fair share, especially due to lack of energy sources in Japan. The falling of oil or gas is more or less the same concern, as the Xihu Trough area is estimated to have 364 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Recent territorial disputes have caused various business partners to pull out of Chinese excavations of the territory. Today, these Islands are controlled by Japan.
Legality – Discussed, still unacceptable
Similar to other international maritime issues, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) heavily relies on the regulations as stated in the mandates of the Convention. One such regulation is the establishment exclusive economic zones (EEZs) which determine the exploitation rights of natural resources found 200 miles from a nation’s baseline. The rules stand same for all the islands, especially the ones that are inhabited. Although the Article 121 states some islands as “rocks” which cannot support human survival and hence is excluded from the EEZ’s. Speaking with respect to the Senkaku islands, the situation remains unclear as the islands are inhabituated, but some do possess the ability to habitat humans.
US has established ADIZ over most of the Japan’s EEZ after the World War. Neither China nor Russia recognizes these ADIZ…in November 2013, China had covered the whole disputed regions along with the Senkaku regions under its ADIZ.
Regardless of the issue, the EEZ still plays an important role in defining sovereignty of independent nations over islands. In the beginning the sovereignty did apply to the fishing rights, which were relevant with the East China Sea issue, now they have become relevant with the abundance of oil. However China declines UNCLOS regulations as it states the laws to be “western supportive”. It is also important to understand that at this point the US is not a UNCLOS signatory.
Another problem tends to appear when these EEZ clash with each other. Both Japan’s and China’s EEZ clash over 200 miles, as the East China Sea is just 360 nautical miles. China claims that its continental shelf pasts the Okinawa Trough, which then meets at Senkaku islands. Japan protests such claims and offered the Median line as a division in between the EEZs.
Talking about the fishing rights, as per the 1997 fishing agreement, the Senkaku islands extends to China’s EEZ. Although Japan has conveyed that no Chinese fishing boats will be stopped which the Chinese usually do in the name of rights. Taiwan and Japan have agreed to set up new fishing rights in the disputed territory if a few regulatory measures are met.
As the region becomes significantly more and more important, different powers continue to affect the region of Asia Pacific. A key factor is establishing security in the region. Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZs) have proved to be a common factor in issues like these. ADIZs extend beyond the nation’s airspace and proves worthy while protecting the nation’s airspace by eliminating aerial threats. These zones provide identification, location, flight plan, and transmit a series of radio frequency in these zones. Generally these regions are specifically designated and do not overlap each other, however, recent events have proven otherwise.
Face-offs and clashes with the journalists have not yet resulted to any military incursions. However, nations have been violating the airspace from time to time.
United States has established ADIZ over most of the Japan’s EEZ after the World War. Neither China nor Russia recognizes these ADIZ. China on the other hand has limited the presence of ADIZ in and around the disputed region. Although in November 2013, China had covered the whole disputed regions along with the Senkaku regions under its ADIZ. This step resulted in massive criticism globally, including Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, and the EU. The US, Japan and South Korea donot recognize the Chinese ADIZ, and the US ignored it clearly, shown by a clear defiance when US aircrafts B – 52 Bombers flew through the region.
Current Situation – Clash for the Sea
Since 1996 numerous incidents have been recorded between the Japanese and Taiwanese activists, sometimes arriving in civilian ships or with the Navy. On numerous occasions Taiwanese Coast Guard and the Chinese Coast Guard were involved in a little heated argument which resulted in water cannons; Tensions have never been such high, but no real conflict has erupted.
Japanese activists have been doing things similar actions in to response to their sovereignty, even when the Japanese Coast Guard also attempted to halt such activities.
One incident that attracted global attention was when the Japanese Coast Guard Ship collided with the Chinese trawler. This event caused a major diplomatic dispute between Japan and China. A similar incident occurred in 2008 but this time it was with the Taiwanese trawler.
Face-offs and clashes with the journalists have not yet resulted to any military incursions. However, nations have been violating the airspace from time to time. In 2013, the Japanese Defense Minister announced that a Chinese frigate had locked weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese destroyer and helicopter on two occasions. China has also announced that if Japan will shoot down Chinese drones entering the area, as they had threatened, China would consider that an act of war.
Incursions by China and Taiwan, and other geopolitical issues are adding more tension to the region.
Also recently, in 2012 the Mayor of Tokyo caused uproar in China by stating that he will use city funds to purchase the islands from their private owners in order to further Japanese sovereignty over the islands. This caused massive tensions with China as they repeated their claims over the territory. The Japanese government instead quickly purchased the islands for the nation itself, causing massive protests throughout China. However, the mayor of Tokyo promised to use the funds raised to buy the island himself which might be used to construct port facilities and a lighthouse in order to further establish Japanese sovereignty.
Military and Civil representatives of Japan’s government should consider multiple ways in order to resolve the issue of Senkaku Islands peacefully. Incursions by China and Taiwan, and other geopolitical issues are adding more tension to the region. Japan’s military has been growing ever since it was crippled by the US after their defeat, but again it is small and relies heavily for weaponry and advancement which only the former can provide. Initiatives should be identified to resolve the issue peacefully using the assistance of international community perhaps, reaching out to ally and friends is a best way to resolve conflict (at least for sometime). Consideration of other nations’ similar disputes, such as the ones in the South China Sea, as a method for finding solutions or support for Japan’s own problems, could be beneficial as well.
However, the issue is heating…. Tensions are high, and conflict is imminent…