Sino-Japanese relations worsen as islands row intensifies

To most uninformed Western observers, they are little more than an unremarkable cluster of islands dotted in the East China Sea. To both Japan and China, however, they are a lot more.

Known as the Diaoyu Islands in China but the Senkaku Islands in neighbouring Japan, the five little clusters of islands are the source of a bitter dispute that has been dragging on for decades and has recently become even more intense.

This latest round of sabre-rattling erupted in 2012 when the government in Tokyo purchased the islands from a private landowner, allegedly to prevent Japanese nationalists from developing them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the historic distrust between the two countries, officials in Beijing have questioned the official narrative, claiming instead that Japan was moving to strengthen its grip on the territory.

The dispute would have continued to be restricted to words alone had a new Beijing government not made a move. Towards the end of last year, the Chinese government announced new air traffic restrictions over and around the islands while simultaneously stepping up military patrols in the waters mid-way between the two countries.

For their part, the Japanese government recently announced plans to start work on a new radar base on Yonaguni Island, located less than 100 miles from the disputed chain of islands. Additionally, the country’s prime minister further fuelled hostilities by paying a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, a location many across Asia believe honours Japanese war criminals. China in particular was incensed by this historic visit as it believes that Japan has not apologised – indeed, it has not even acknowledged – the brutality of its forces of occupation during the second world war.

International concerns

Unsurprisingly, heightened hostilities between two of the region’s major powers have caused considerable unrest, not just among their neighbours. President Obama, on a recently-concluded state visit to Japan, confirmed that the US would be duty bound to come to the aid of the Tokyo government should the dispute over what he pointedly referred to as the Senakuku Islands go beyond mere words.

“We don’t take a position on final sovereignty of the Senkakus, but historically they’ve been administered by Japan and should not be subject to change unilaterally,” the president said, adding he was confident the two countries would be able to resolve the dispute through dialogue.

With China and Japan the world’s second and third largest economies respectively, it is hoped such a conflict can be amicably resolved. However, with the US demonstrably allying with Japan, one can only pray any tension does not spread beyond the spheres of this particular dispute – for example, into the business world.

But if no breakthrough can be made through such dialogue, would either country be willing to go to war for some islands, no matter how historically significant or even despite the fact they could be home to considerable oil and gas reserves? According to some observers, while China in particular will never want to be seen to be acceding even the smallest amount of land, economic considerations – and not least the prospect of lucrative trade ties with the US – should keep matters peaceful.

Ongoing threat of confrontation

Even if the present hostilities do ease and relations between the two countries improve, most experts agree that the issue of who owns the islands will never truly be resolved. Indeed, levels of antagonism are only likely to get worse as both parties maintain their claims to the islands, thereby increasing their symbolic value and making it even less likely that either will give them up without a fight.

At the beginning of April, the Japanese government approved new primary school textbooks in which the country’s claim on the islands is once again reiterated. Meanwhile, the BBC has reported that the Chinese government is continuing to release anti-Japanese propaganda in an effort to make youngsters there aware of the history and significance of the dispute. So long as the argument is being kept alive by future generations, as the BBC notes, “the threat of a serious military confrontation is never far away”.

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