Islands dispute rocks diplomatic relations between Japan and China
The islands came under US jurisdiction from the end of the second World War until 1972 and were among the many issues swept under the rug by successive US and Japanese administrations. The China-Japan Joint Declaration of 1972 was widely expected in Taiwan and China to hand over jurisdiction to Beijing and planted the seeds of this summer’s conflict when it did not.
Debate rages about the true value of the rocks. The area around the Senkakus/Diaoyus is routinely described as “rich” in resources but that assessment is much disputed. “The hydrocarbon reserves are not very significant at all,” said James Manicom, a visiting researcher at the Ocean Policy Research Foundation in Tokyo.
In an interview last year with the National Bureau of Asian Research, he added: “If the two sides were really desperate for energy, presumably they would recognise that the fastest way to access the resources is to exploit them, rather than argue over them.”
Some observers therefore conclude that the conflict is rooted in politics, not oil or fish. To China, the Diaoyus are a symbol of Japanese colonialism, swiped as the spoils of war during a period of national weakness. The day after Noda’s announcement of Japan’s nationalisation plan, a Chinese government spokesman called the islets “sacred territory”.
The fact that conservatives such as Ishihara routinely deny Japanese war crimes against China helps inflame tensions and ensure the Chinese further dig in their heels.
For Japanese nationalists, the rocks are a line in the sand against the rising maritime might of its increasingly powerful neighbour.
“China is becoming a very strong power. We have to protect our national interest,” says Hiroyuki Kurihara, a spokesman for the family that owns four of the five islands.
The Kuriharas, who are reportedly in financial difficulty, say they have long feared that a private buyer could be a front for a Chinese corporation or owner.
If, as expected, Japan’s government completes negotiations with the Kuriharas and buys the islands it will become directly responsible for what happens to them. In the meantime, Tokyo will repeat the mantra that they are Japanese and therefore the dispute can only be dealt with under domestic law, ignoring precedents for diplomatic negotiation and accommodation.
In the late 1970s, China’s vice-premier, Deng Xiaoping, agreed to shelve the dispute during negotiations with Japan. Deng said the “next generation” might have the wisdom to resolve the conflict. So far he appears he was wrong.