China and Japan dispute who owns group of strategically placed islands

disputed islands near Taiwan

Big trouble in small packages

JISHOU, HUNAN — While the local and Chinese governments draw international attention to our little part of this rock we call Earth, a more serious issue is brewing in the waters to the east, and in the streets all over China.

China is once again in a territorial dispute with one of its neighbors, Japan. And this time it’s not about fish.*

The dispute has to do with a group of small islands between Okinawa and Taiwan that the Japanese call Senkaku, the Chinese call DiaoYu and the Taiwanese call TiaoYu. As real estate they aren’t much to speak of, but they just so happen to be near suspected undersea oil and gas fields.

Japan says the islands have been part of its territory since 1895, while China and Taiwan (who agree on this!) assert the islands were Chinese territory more than 300 years before Japan annexed them in the first Sino-Japanese War.

While the three national governments exchange strongly worded communiqués, nationalistic Chinese and Japanese citizens have been taking to the streets and to the Internet to lodge their own protests.

Just this week, I got an email from the US Embassy in Beijing advising Americans to avoid street protests, as some have become free-for-alls with overturned cars and smashed shop windows. And the university has advised students to do likewise, in the interests of their personal safety.

Naturally, the Chinese government is permitting THIS kind of street protest/mob violence, if not outright encouraging it, since it suits the Party line. Many Chinese still hate the Japanese because of the 1936-45 Japanese occupation of China and the atrocities that they (and others) say Japan committed and that Japan has neither acknowledged nor apologized for. Lest Chinese never forget, TV viewers can watch several wartime dramas to remind them of those bad times. And Beijing is always ready to encourage national fervor and anti-Japanese emotions.

Needless to say, Chinese are angry that Japan claims the same islands that China and Taiwan claim, whether they realize the fuss is really as much about oil and gas supplies as national pride.

Some even wonder if China and Japan will go to war over the islands. Pretty doubtful, but both Japan and China have navy and coast guard vessels patrolling the area, which is just begging for trouble. There was a dispute just two years ago when a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese coast guard vessel collided near the islands. After Japan seized the boat and detained the crew, Chinese went to the streets and the ‘Net in a nationalistic frenzy.

Chinese protests

Chinese protest Japanese purchase of islands

Meanwhile, the US is trying to get everyone to calm down. Good luck with that.

For a good analysis of the American involvement in the dispute, check this blog at Foreign Policy.

With the help of Wikipedia and news reports, I’ve made a timeline to help explain the situation.

DiaoYu/Senkaku Islands timeline

  • 1534 year by which Taiwan and China both claim the islands were Chinese territory
  • 1895 Japan annexes islands during first Sino-Japanese War (Treaty of Shimonoseki)
  • 1900 Japanese entrepreneur Koga Tatsushiro buys the islands
  • 1945 US occupies islands after Japanese surrender; China and Taiwan have since contended the islands should have been returned to China, according to their reading of the Potsdam Declaration. Both Taiwan and China agree the islands are Taiwanese territory.
  • 1969 potential undersea oil and gas reserves identified near islands
  • 1970s Tatsushiro descendents sell four islets to Kurihara family
  • 1972 US returns islands to Japanese control. Taiwan and China officially declare ownership of islands
  • 2002-2012 Japan pays Kurihara family about 25 million yen/year to rent three of the islands
  • 2010 Ishigaki, Okinawa, which administers islands, declares Jan. 14 as Pioneering Day to comemmorate the 1895 annexation. China condemns action.
  • 4 July 2010 Chinese fishing boat collides with Japanese coast guard vessel. Crew and captain are held in custody. They are released several days later without charge. Chinese authorities protest detainment. Chinese people take to streets and ‘Net to protest.
  • 4 July 2012 activists on board a Taiwanese fishing boat, escorted by Taiwanese coast guard, plant a mainland Chinese flag on the largest island. Japanese coast guard tries to board fishing vessels, but the Taiwanese coast guard drives them off.
  • 15 August 2012 5 of 14 activists from Hong Kong land on the largest island, planting both Chinese national flags. They are arrested by Japanese authorities for violating immigration laws. All 14 are deported to HK without charges being filed. Shortly thereafter a large group of Japanese sail to the islands to hold a memorial service for Japanese who died during WWII. Ten swim ashore and plant Japanese flags on the largest island, setting angry street protests in China. Protesters overturn Japanese-made cars and smash windows of Japanese-themed businesses.
  • 11 Sept 2012 Japan pays Kuriharas 2.05 billion yen for the three of the five largest islands, Minamikojima (Nan Xiaodao 南小岛), Kitakojima (Bei Xiaodao 北小岛), and Uotsuri (Diaoyu Dao 钓鱼岛). Chinese foreign ministry gets pissed in a strongly worded communiqué. China sends patrol ships out to islands. Street protests ensue all over China.

protest sign in dining hallUPDATE: This sign was in one of the university dining halls. The short translation is: “Japan, get out!” And from my window I can hear some kind of rally going on in the public square outside campus.


* China and Vietnam have been at odds over Vietnam claiming the Spratly Islands as territory. China and the Philippines are also disputing sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal. Both are prime fishing areas, and may also be near undersea gas and oil reserves.

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