Japan and China’s undersea oil wars

By Mike Nakada,

Violent riots in China following the purchase of the much-disputed Senkaku Islands by the Japanese government on Sept. 11 of 2012, left Japanese cars on fire, businesses in ruins and people terrified. All this for islands that are only about three square kilometers at the largest.

For many people who do not live in either of these regions, this may look like nothing more than countries fighting over a couple of pointless rocks out in the ocean. But the roots of this dispute are much deeper – deep below the sea that is.

Uotsuri Island

A photo of Uotsuri Island, the largest of the Senkaku Islands
Image courtesy of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism of Japan

According to a study done by the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East in 1968, there may be up to 100 billion barrels of oil in the area surrounding the islands; that’s almost as much oil as there is in the entire country of Iraq.  Japan seemed to control the islands at the time, but China and Taiwan started claiming that the islands belonged to them after this discovery.

Fighting has been on and off since then, but what truly lit the fire in recent years was a collision between a Chinese fishing vessel and a Japanese Coast Guard ship in 2010. This collision took place off the coast of the Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu in China, and ended with the captain of the Chinese ship being arrested and later released.

Tensions between Japan and China hit a high point when a video of the vessel colliding with the coast guard ship was leaked by a coast guard worker.

Japan, China and Taiwan show no intention of cooperating because they see no reason to have to share resources that are in their own waters.

Japan’s Position

According to an official statement by the Japan Foreign Ministry, Japan’s view is that it was not required to return the Senkaku Islands after World War II because they had been under Japanese control since the late 1800s and therefore continue to belong to Japan.

The basis of this comes from the San Francisco Peace Treaty signed in 1951 to officially end the occupation of Japan. In the treaty, there are no direct statements about Japan being required to return the islands. China did not sign this treaty.

Japanese Fishermen

A photo of the Japanese settlement on Uotsuri Island

Japan agrees with China on the fact that China did possibly know about the islands before Japan did, but states that China showed no intention of controlling these islands and that Japan officially took control of the islands in 1895.Some view the Senkaku Islands as part of the spoils of the Sino-Japanese War that ended in 1895, but the Senkaku Islands were not included in the list of islands to be handed over to Japan in the Shimonoseki Treaty signed after the war. Japan sees this as as sign that the Chinese government at the time recognized Japan’s ownership of the islands prior to 1895.

Japanese people were living on the islands from 1884 through 1940 and were put under U.S. control after World War II. Japan believes that the islands were returned to their control along with Okinawa in 1972.

China and Taiwan’s Position

China’s claims revolve mainly around the fact that they view the treaties that Japan cites as invalid. They also show that there are many maps dating back as far as 1403 that have the name Diaoyu on them.

“The Chinese nation has always considered the Diayou islands as part of China,” said Associate Professor He Shu, a visiting scholar from the School of Journalism and Communication at the Peking University. “As far as I know, they were lost and occupied by Westerners but after World War II they were returned to China according to the Postdam Declaration which indicated that the defeated countries should return the territories once they got as a result of unfair treaties signed before.”

A map showing the location of the islands. (Courtesy of David Vasquez)

According to a statement made by the Chinese Embassy in Japan, the claims made by Japan  are invalid. China interprets that the Potsdam Declaration states that Japan may control only the islands that the parties that signed the treaty decided on.

China states that as a part of the winning side of World War II, they have the right to decide whether Japan can keep control over the Senkaku Islands or not. However, Japan points out that the current China did not exist at the time of the declaration and that basing an argument on it may be invalid.

Taiwan, also known as The Republic of China, bases many of its claims on the same grounds China does. Its claims are also based on the fact that it see itself as the legitimate successor to the Chinese government prior to the Chinese Civil War. America, Japan and China do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation.

Taiwan currently shows no intention of cooperating with China on this issue based on the fact that China does not recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty.

The Future

With the Chinese leadership scheduled to change in November and the possibility of the current prime minister of Japan stepping down, the future of these islands is up in the air. The winner of the U.S. presidential election will also become a key factor in deciding the fate of these islands. At the moment, confrontations between Japanese coast guard ships and Chinese vessels will probably continue.