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The Senkaku Islands Dispute: Risk to U.S. Rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific?

The Senkaku Islands Dispute: Risk to U.S. Rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific?

In September a major diplomatic crisis erupted between China and Japan over a group of five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks located 120 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan, 200 nautical miles southeast of Okinawa and 200 nautical miles east of China. Collectively these islets and rocks are known as the Senkaku islands in Japanese and the Diaoyutai in Chinese. Japan, China and Taiwan each claim sovereignty over the Senkakus/Diaoyutai.

Historical Background

Japan acquired the Senkaku Islands in 1895 after defeating China in the First Sino-Japanese War. Under the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, China transferred sovereignty over both Taiwan and the Senkakus to Japan. The Senkakus came under U.S. control when it occupied Japan and Okinawa in 1945 at the end of World War II. In 1972 the U.S. returned Okinawa and the Senkakus to Japan. The Senkakus are presently administered as part of Okinawa prefecture.

View Senkaku Islands in a larger map

In 1969 a survey conducted under the auspices of the United Nations determined that there were potentially large oil and gas deposits in the seabed surrounding the Senkakus. According to Japanese sources, the discovery of hydrocarbons was the catalyst that reignited Chinese claims to the Diaoyutai. Both Taiwan and China claim sovereignty based on Ming Dynasty documents listing the Diaoyutai as prized possessions of the Chinese emperor.

In September 1972 China and Japan normalized diplomatic relations. Six years later both sides signed a bilateral fishing agreement and reached an understanding to set aside their dispute over the Senkakus/Diaoyutai as a matter for future generations to decide. In 2008 China and Japan agreed to jointly explore for oil in waters off the Senkakus; but that undertaking was never implemented.

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