Turbulent waters: The escalating row between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands has implications for us all

If Beijing has a case here then it must be proven legally, not through brawn


A tiny chain of five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks, hundreds of miles from land, might seem an unlikely prize. But with everything from oil revenues to regional clout at stake, the contretemps over an obscure archipelago known to Japan as the Senkaku and to China as the Diaoyu is cause for grave concern.

Beijing maintains that the islands were claimed by China in the 1300s; Tokyo says they were an international no man’s land until Japan took them over in 1895. The row has been rumbling since the 1970s, but the pressure has steadily increased in recent years as a newly rich China has sought to flex its regional muscles and extend its influence in the US-dominated Pacific.

Japan must bear responsibility for many recent flashpoints. Last year’s announcement by the Governor of Tokyo of plans to use public money to buy the islands from their private owner hardly aimed to defuse the tension. This time, though, it is China that has upped the ante – and how. Last weekend, Beijing declared a new “air defence identification zone” covering a swathe of the South China Sea, including the islands, requiring all aircraft entering the sector to submit flight plans or face “defensive emergency measures”. Even more provocatively, the area overlaps with one of Japan’s own air defence zones.

Sure enough, Tokyo’s response was swift and uncompromising. The Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, derided the plan as “unenforceable” and “of no validity whatsoever”; and the two Japanese long-haul airlines which initially complied with Beijing’s demands were soon persuaded to withdraw their co-operation.

But it is the reaction of the US that is crucial here. Indeed, in the context not only of Washington’s post-war commitment to the defence of Japanese territory (which includes the Senkaku Islands), but also the recent foreign policy “pivot to Asia” (prompted by rising Chinese power), Beijing’s move looks like as much of a test of Barack Obama as of Mr Abe.

The answer was unequivocal. On Tuesday, the US flew two unarmed B52s through the zone without notifying the Chinese. The Pentagon claims that the flight was a long-planned training mission but the message is clear – particularly given that it came just days after the Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, branded Beijing’s move “a destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region” and stated explicitly that American military operations would not change.

Washington’s move was the right one. China cannot be allowed to throw its weight around; if Beijing has a case then it must be legally proven, not administered unilaterally at the point of a metaphorical bayonet. Equally, however, Japan has shown itself too ready to indulge in chest-beating of its own and Mr Abe at times exhibits disturbingly nationalist leanings. The US must be sure that, while maintaining regional balance, it does not endorse such posturing.

China’s economic rise inevitably brings disruption with it. And with both Beijing and Tokyo under growing domestic pressure for a show of strength abroad, the diplomatic task facing the US in Asia is as difficult and perilous as any. The Senkaku/Diaoyu are just a few distant rocks, but they may also be the fulcrum upon which one of the greatest challenges of 21st-century geopolitics will turn.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

An unelectable extremist who hijacked their party has already served as prime minister – her name was Margaret Thatcher

Jacques Peretti

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent