Why has China come to insist that the Senkaku Islands are part of its territory? This began in the latter half of the 1960s, when the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) released the results of its survey indicating large amounts of oil in the ocean area near the islands. Since then, China - which was not previously interested in the Senkaku Islands - began claiming it possessed territorial rights out of a desire for oil resources. This is even recognized by Zhou Enlai, who was premier of the People’s Republic of China at that time. Perhaps that was true back then, but now China is seeking the Senkaku Islands not just for oil resources, but because it wants to acquire marine rights to the entire East China Sea and the Ryukyu Islands, including the main island of Okinawa.
In 1971, no matter how much China insisted on territorial rights to the Senkaku Islands, it didn’t have anything that resembled a navy. Lacking the power to invade the East China Sea or to mine the offshore oil fields, China had no choice but to use delaying tactics. For that reason, China decided to send more than 100 armed fishing boats to the ocean off the coast of the Senkaku Islands in April 1978. Perhaps China had seen the Japanese government’s response to the hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 472 that occurred during the previous year; China might have belittled the Japanese government, figuring it could do nothing in this incident as well. The Japan Coast Guard (JCG) patrol boats and armed Chinese fishing boats - which repeatedly intruded into Japan’s territorial waters - were in a standoff, and the situation was a critical one. However, rather than seizing the Chinese fishing boats, the Japanese government of that time could do nothing but protest these circumstances (just as China had predicted). The armed fishing boats withdrew in response to the Japanese government’s protests, and China talked itself out of the incident by saying it was merely an accident.
However, at that time China had just gone through the Cultural Revolution. Compared to today, at that time strict regulations were placed on people in China, which is why more than 100 armed fishing boats would have been unable to depart while disregarding the intentions of the government. Despite this, the Japanese government did not investigate the incident as a major one in which its sovereignty was violated. Instead, the territorial rights to the Senkaku Islands were left ambiguous, and the Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between Japan and the People’s Republic of China was signed in August of that year. This was the starting point for Japan’s diplomacy towards China, which continues even today.
In contrast, two months later Deng Xiaoping (the top person of power in China at that time) said, “We can shelve the Senkaku issue for 10 years - the people of the next generation will doubtless find a way to resolve it.” Still, the Japanese government made no clear objection. At that time the circumstances inside China were very difficult because of the Cultural Revolution that had just ended, and there were troubles outside the country as well because of conflict with the Soviet Union. There was no reason for Japan to compromise, yet the government of that time simply went along with China and lost the chance to make China recognize Japan’s dominion over the Senkaku Islands.

Japan’s “effective control” over the Senkaku Islands is an illusion

The foundation of Deng Xiaoping’s opinion that it was acceptable to put off the Senkaku Islands issue seems to be the thinking that, in order to avoid provoking Japan, Japan should continue having effective control. But if one is aware of the actual conditions at the Senkaku Islands and their adjacent seas at that time, it is impossible to say that Japan had effective control. Nobody could land on the islands and the old Japanese settlement had fallen to ruins. The goats brought to the islands had multiplied and were disturbing the islands’ ecosystem, but no survey could be conducted on this. Furthermore, parts of the mountains had collapsed because the goats had eaten the grass off of them, so large quantities of debris drifted ashore to the beaches. But because nobody could land there, no efforts have been made to fix this and the islands have been abandoned. There, environmental destruction progresses every day.
In principle, fishing activities by foreign nationals in Japan’s territorial waters are deemed acceptable according to the Act on Regulation of Fishing Operation by Foreign Nationals. However, the Japanese government does not attempt to make arrests even when Chinese fishing boats engage in illegal operations in Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands. Consequently, Chinese and Taiwanese fishing boats are carrying out fishing activities in the surrounding waters, while Japanese fishing boats - after spending the expensive sum of more than 100,000 yen for fuel to and from the area near the Senkaku Islands - are hindered by the Chinese fishing boats and often cannot fish there properly. In this way, Japanese boats have naturally stopped making frequent visits to the Senkaku Islands. The Japanese boats are no match for the Chinese in terms of size and number, so they have no way to respond to this interference from the Chinese fishing boats. As a result, the fish catches near the Senkaku Islands, which totaled approximately 1.5 billion yen at their peak, have recently dropped to the several million yen range.
The Japanese government continually states that it has effective control over the Senkaku Islands, which are traditional Japanese territory. Yet even when members of Japan’s National Diet applied to visit the islands for a memorial service, they were denied. The mayor of Ishigaki City, the administrative district where the Senkaku Islands are located, was also denied when he applied to visit the islands for a fixed asset tax-related survey. An application to visit and conduct a survey for Tokyo’s purchase of the islands was also denied. Although it wasn’t clear what the final purchase price would be, people usually have the right to investigate - even to an unnecessary degree - when buying something that costs at least several hundred million yen. Yet the Japanese government did not even allow this. Moreover, an environmental conservation group was not allowed to land for the purpose of surveying the plants and animals that only live on the Senkaku Islands and are probably on the brink of extinction. Perhaps the Japanese government is doing this out of consideration for China; it does not take any actions even when the earth’s assets are about to disappear due to human circumstances. In contrast, Chinese people have been allowed to land even though they had previously announced that they would carry out illegal landings to protest Japan’s possession of the islands.
The Japanese government does not allow Japanese people to land on the Senkaku Islands for justifiable reasons, yet it permits the landing of Chinese people, even though they are suspected of committing crimes. To people from other countries, which country does it appear these islands belong to? Can Japan really say that the islands are Japanese territory, or that it has effective control? Several JCG patrol boats are deployed in the seas adjacent to the Senkaku Islands, but in reality it is difficult for them to execute domestic laws when commanded to do so by the Japanese government in response to Chinese boats. In fact, it seems appropriate to say these boats are deployed there only so that Japan can say it has effective control of the Senkaku Islands.
Right now China is still only using official boats such as fishery patrol boats to visit the ocean near the Senkaku Islands at fixed intervals. However, if China improved its equipment in the future, it would probably dispatch more official boats including fishery patrol boats and ocean investigation boats like Japan. If the number of boats was larger than Japan’s, it’s likely that China would come to use force like it does in the South China Sea. In that case, if Japan’s only basis for its effective control over the Senkaku Islands was its deployment of JCG patrol boats in that ocean area, Japan’s claim would no longer hold water. Before this happens, Japan must strengthen its effective control through other peaceful means in addition to the deployment of JCG patrol boats.

The danger of postponing issues

In addition, for around 20 consecutive years China has increased its war expenditures by two digits against a background of favorable economic growth. Its navy and air force were weak about 20 years ago, but now China has forces that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Japan’s in the realm of equipment. China’s future policy involves reducing its army while enlarging its navy strength. Last year China purchased a used aircraft carrier from Ukraine, which it has remodeled and put into commission. This aircraft carrier won’t be an immediate threat, but in the future China plans to build a domestically-produced, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. As time passes, it will certainly create a fleet of aircraft carriers.
China is also devoting efforts to the development of weapons including the Dong-Feng 21, an antiship ballistic missile that is known as a “carrier killer.” This was clearly created from awareness of the U.S. Navy, and China is fully asserting its defense of its own country. However, where is the country that has the capability and desire to invade China at this point? With this enhanced military strength, China will certainly turn towards the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Pacific Ocean.
China isn’t only putting effort into its navy; it is also considering the integration and structural reform of nine government offices related to marine rights, such as the State Oceanic Administration. It is also progressively reviewing its government organizations, as well as their operation, as shown by actions such as those aimed at strengthening coordination with the army. The State Oceanic Administration also intends to deploy 36 patrol boats from 2011 to 2015. In other words, China is dedicating the state’s total energy towards the attempt at putting its hopes for marine advancement into practice.
Conversely, the situation in Japan is one in which Official Development Assistance (ODA) to China is continued while defense costs are only being decreased, and even the number of regular personnel is being reduced. Although cooperative training is being held by the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) and other ministries at the field level, overall it does not seem that any integrated applications are being considered. As usual, defense of the Senkaku Islands is being fully entrusted to the JCG, an agency of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. It will take two years for measures such as revisions to the Japan Coast Guard Act, which has bound the JCG hand and foot. If Japan continues doing nothing, in the near future we will not be able to avoid seeing China’s military strength visibly surpass Japan’s. This would destroy the military balance between the two countries and increase the risk of armed conflict.
Furthermore, it is easy to imagine how China - which is behaving with great arrogance at present - would act if it gained military strength that outstripped Japan’s. So that Japan does not fall into such circumstances, we need to have effective rule of the Senkaku Islands to clearly show everyone that the islands are Japanese territory. We need to urgently create a system of law that allows us to put up a fight against aggressor nations, including revisions to the Constitution of Japan, which does not include the supposition of invasion by a foreign country. We must also promptly reinforce the JSDF and JCG; since it would be impossible to instantly reinforce these organizations upon the sudden decision to do so, we should lose no time in thinking of the cultivation of human resources in particular.
Takeshima is a good example of what happens when issues are postponed - even if one party adheres to a promise, there’s no point if the other party reneges on it. Korea desperately wanted aid from Japan, so it shelved the Takeshima issue at the conclusion of the Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea. After receiving aid from Japan, Korea embarked on effective control of the islands; there’s no point in even mentioning what the present state of this issue is. During diplomacy it is the height of folly to simply expect the other party to have good intentions. This was demonstrated by the Hull note that was the result of Fumimaro Konoe’s hopes for peace that he entrusted to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. Similarly, in 1945 the answer to a request for the Soviet Union (currently Russia) to mediate at peace talks with the allied nations was a declaration of war. Simply having unilateral trust in the other party leads to tragic results.

China pushes, while Japan pulls back

While the Japanese side was hesitating over effective control, in 1992 China brought the Senkaku Islands into its territory by creating the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone. In 2009 China determined that it would directly control the islands through the Island Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China. Although Japan enacted the Basic Act on Ocean Policy in 2007, absolutely no progress has been made regarding the remote island policies that are stated in this act. The attitude of the Japanese government has not been firm towards the repeated illegal operations by China in Japan’s territorial waters, or towards the unlawful landings by activists on the islands. Therefore, in 2010 the number of illegal operations by Chinese fishing boats near the Senkaku Islands increased rapidly, which led to the fishing boat collision incident that September. The Japanese government once again erred in its handling of this incident, so afterwards official boats from China such as fishery patrol boats frequently came to the area in addition to civilian fishing boats. This has great significance; civilian fishing boats can be responded to via the JCG’s police powers, but under international law official boats have extraterritoriality and cannot be dealt with according to Japan’s domestic laws. Consequently, the JCG - which only possesses police powers - can do nothing. Furthermore, China has even announced its intention to invade the Senkaku Islands, perhaps because it is confident of what Japan’s response will be. For example, in March of this year a high official from the State Oceanic Administration said that Japan’s effective control over the Senkaku Islands will be abolished. It seems that many citizens over the past year or two have only paid attention to the phenomena that can be seen with their eyes, and have mistaken these phenomena for reality. In truth, Japan has been locked into this dispute as the result of repeated concessions to China by the Japanese government, which has for long years faithfully defended China’s policy of shelving the issue - a policy that China has already discarded.
China’s invasions of Japan are not limited to the ocean, but are also occurring from the skies. Among the records released by the Ministry of Defense of scrambles by Air Self-Defense Force fighter and other aircraft, only around 30 incidents occurred in the three-year period from 2006 to 2009. However, this number leaped to 96 incidents in 2010 and 156 in 2011.
In addition, in recent years the Chinese Navy has passed through Japan’s coastal waters and is increasingly embarking into the western Pacific Ocean. These actions are not unrelated; they show that the Senkaku Islands are not China’s only aim.
Japan needs to look at the Chinese invasions from a broader viewpoint that is not limited only to the Senkaku Islands. To that end as well, we must not forget the issue of the gas fields in the East China Sea.

The true nature of the East China Sea gas fields issue

In June 2004, it was confirmed that China had begun full-scale development of the Chunxiao gas field near the dividing line between Japan and China. The Chunxiao and Duanqiao gas fields are connected to the Japanese side through underground structures that span the dividing line, and it’s highly possible that other gas fields also have similar underground structures as well. Because of the risk of the resources on the Japanese side being harvested as well, the Japanese government asked China to halt development work and provide data about the underground structures. However, the Chinese side rejected all of Japan’s requests. It continued carrying out development in a unilateral way while deploying battleships near the gas fields, as it steadily increased its mining areas.
China finally responded to Japan’s repeated appeals, and in 2008 a temporary agreement was obtained between Japan and China. However, this agreement was certainly not one exchanged between countries with an equal relationship, and demanded many concessions from Japan. In it, the Chinese side past the dividing line belongs to China, so Japan has to pay money according to Chinese laws to participate on that side. However, the Japanese side past the dividing line was to be the location of joint development. Nevertheless, China violated this agreement in a one-sided way as it continued mining in the Tianwaitian gas field, where continued discussions about development had been temporarily halted. In January 2012, fires for burning gas were confirmed in this gas field. Meanwhile, China continues disregarding Japan’s protests; the conference on the joint Japan-China development of the East China Sea gas fields was cancelled right before it was scheduled to take place in 2010.
China still hasn’t provided data on its underground structures, and will not engage in discussions with Japan. It unilaterally defies the Japan-China agreement to mine gas fields that span the intermediate line between the two countries, and is stealing gas from Japan. In this way, over the past eight years China has simply done as it pleased. Yet the current situation is that Japan has been unable to respond in an effective way, and merely granted mining rights to Teikoku Oil in 2005.
The important issue here is that the main point of these gas field boundary demarcations is not the resources themselves - it is the demarcation of the boundary line in the East China Sea between Japan and China (the boundary lines for the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of Japan and China have still not been determined). In the East China Sea there are less than 400 nautical miles between the two countries of Japan and China. To determine a boundary between the two countries, naturally the intermediate line should be equidistant. However, China uses the theory of the natural prolongation of the continental shelf to claim that its seas span to the Okinawa Trough that is located west of the Ryukyu Islands. China’s claims cannot be accepted for reasons including the fact that the Japanese archipelago, including the Ryukyu Islands, is located above the continental shelf of the Eurasian continent. The Okinawa Trough is simply a depression in the bottom of the ocean (the continental shelf of the East China Sea b elongs to both China and Japan; both countries claim rights to it, so China’s claims are one-sided and meaningless). Another reason is the many recent precedents in the International Court of Justice that state boundary lines as the equidistant border between countries.
By all rights, Japan’s position should be one of insisting that its EEZ and continental shelf spans 200 nautical miles from Japanese territory. In the ocean areas where both countries claim rights, joint development should take place. Alternatively, the two countries could agree to not develop these areas until a boundary line is defined.
Currently, China isn’t even abiding by the agreement that contains so many compromises by Japan. If it continues ignoring Japan hereafter, Japan should also begin development on the Japanese side past the dividing line. If not, the East China Sea will become the possession of China, just as China anticipates.

What should Japan do in the future?

As described above, since the establishment of diplomatic relations with China, the Japanese government has continued making concessions to China in the East China Sea. Consequently, beautiful islands have become desolated, precious ocean has been lost, and the Japanese people are even losing their pride. If Japan continues compromising, we will not only lose the entire East China Sea; China will gain control of Okinawa and the west Pacific Ocean as well. Japan currently depends on marine transport from foreign countries for the majority of its food and energy. If China does gain control, it will have seized Japan’s lifelines as well.
Japan should clarify its position on the Senkaku Islands issue rather than expecting the invocation of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. The Senkaku Islands are obviously included in the mandate determined through the Treaty of Peace With Japan (Treaty of San Francisco) with the allied Nations centered on the U.S., as well as the scope of sovereignty returned by the U.S. to Japan through the Agreement Between Japan and the United States of America Concerning the Ryukyu Islands and the Daito Islands (Okinawa Reversion Agreement). Moreover, the U.S. is currently borrowing two islands (Kuba Island and Taisho Island) from Japan for use as airplane target practice sites. If the Senkaku Islands were Chinese territory, the U.S. would not be able to willfully rule, return sovereignty, or borrow islands from Japan.
Japan should also construct a system for cooperation with India and countries that are also suffering invasions by China in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Furthermore, we must condemn acts of aggression in regions including the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia, and stop the despotic administration that is currently ignoring human rights in various countries. Japan should serve a central role for these countries to engage in mutual coordination to appeal to the international community, and should not be negligent in making great efforts to induce China to obey international laws.
More than anything, we Japanese must be aware that it is only natural for us to protect our country’s territorial waters by ourselves, and to put this into practice. This is an obvious thing, but peace has made Japanese people too complacent and so great difficulties may be experienced. In the fishing boat collision incident of 2010, Chinese oppression was displayed and Japan was pressured by parties inside and outside of the country. This will likely be repeated in the future if Japan does not go along with what China says. Therefore we, the citizens of Japan, need to be ready to endure this. The Japanese people who are alive now must protect our territory and pride so that we will not earn the shame of our descendants. Protecting the Senkaku Islands means protecting all of Okinawa and the East China Sea, but it also means protecting the country of Japan itself.

[Reference materials (in Japanese)]
・Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan website
・NIDS China Security Report 2011, The National Institute for Defense Studies