In East Asia, international tensions are created and sustained as much by hundred-year-old history as recent diplomatic incidents. Disputes over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, known as Daioyu in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan, are no exception, with conflicting ownership claims going back to the late 19th century. Sparked by the Japanese government’s purchase of the island chain, the recent protests in China are only the latest in a long history of territorial conflicts.
A century of competing claims underlies the current dispute, with both the Japanese and PRC governments offering conflicting historical evidence. Japan formally took control of the Senkaku Islands during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), citing government land surveys confirming that the islands were uninhabited. After losing the war, China signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, which ceded “the island of Formosa (Taiwan) [and all islands] belonging to said island of Formosa.” However, the treaty did not specifically mention the Senkaku islands as part of the Formosa island chain.
This distinction became important after World War II, when the Treaty of San Francisco nullified all previous treaties, returning previously ceded territory to Chinese control. According to both China and Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands were not incorporated into Japan before 1894, and should have been included in the returned territory. Japan denies this assertion, claiming that the islands were administered as part of the Okinawa island chain pre-war, not granted in 1895, and thus not renounced after WWII. Each side points to a variety of maps, newspaper articles, and atlas books; documents can be found to support either interpretation.
While it’s difficult to determine the veracity of historical claims before mid 20th century, ownership post WWII is far better established. The islands were administered by the United States until 1971, with no protest from the Chinese government until preparations began to transfer the islands back to Japanese control. Only in late 1971 did China’s Ministry of Foreign affairs begin to assert that the Senkaku Islands were “an integral part of the Chinese territory."
By that point, the rocky Senkaku islands had become far more valuable, after a 1969 UN report identified the possibility of large oil reserves in the region. The lure of oil resources is generally thought to be one of the main factors driving the dispute. Control of the islands also impacts territorial claims, and in recent years some analysts have also seen the dispute as part of a larger pattern of Chinese aggression in pushing territorial claims throughout the region.
While the Japanese government officially denies the existence of competing territorial claims over the Senkaku Islands, it has had to cope with repeated diplomatic crises over the land. Activists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China have all staged stunts near the islands designed to assert sovereignty over the islands, and the dispute is a continual irritant in diplomatic talks between the nations. Most recently, in response to an announcement last week that the Japanese government would buy several of the Senkaku Islands, activists from Hong Kong landed on the islands, only to be promptly arrested by Japanese authorities and deported.
At first glance, buying the islands seems to undermine the Japanese government’s desire to "maintain and manage (the islands) peacefully and stably." (Currently, the islands are leased by the national government from a private Japanese owner.) However, the decision was likely a hedge against stunts by Japanese nationalists. Precipitated by an announcement that Tokyo would seek to purchase the islands, Prime Minister Noda and others may well have worried that Tokyo Mayor Shintaro Ishihara, known for his hard-line nationalistic rhetoric, would only drive tensions between Japan and China higher. While the Japanese government has acted prudently in this case to minimize diplomatic fallout, widespread protests throughout China make it clear that the Chinese government will not be so cautious. If the purchase causes long-term diplomatic fallout, China will be the clear culprit.