Conflicts in the South China Sea are recurrent between the great powers, and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are one of them. Between regional and international leadership and the control of resources, China and Japan are in perpetual competition.
Since the administration of the Senkaku Islands to Japan by the United States in 1971, Japan, Taiwan, and China have been fighting over their control. That same year, Taiwan registered the islands as part of their territory and imposed its flag, and for China, de facto, a territory of its own. Following this event, many reactions from each of the three parties appeared such as the approach of Chinese ships, the creation of lighthouses, the introduction of the archipelago in the national laws, or the installation of drilling platforms. In 2012, Japan decided to nationalize three of the five Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in order to impose its regional leadership and control over the wealth, which is unlikely to ease tensions unless both sides try to come to an agreement…
Potential Conflict Management Strategies
Because the stakes in this archipelago are so high, it does not seem possible to put an end to the demonstrations of force and the crisis in the short or medium term. This dispute, formalized in 2012 by the drawing of China’s territorial lines at the UN, is broader than a simple territorial conflict: there is a dimension of competition for regional and international leadership, but also, and above all, for control of natural resources.
International relations are governed by the needs and desires of each country and human beings and natural resources are at the heart of this process. Limited and reduced for many years, tensions appear in all regions of the globe to control them.
The archipelago is coveted by these powers because of its fishery resources, but especially its hydrocarbon resources. Numerous gas fields, in a problematic Exclusive Economic Zone close to the islands, are already being exploited by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation. This area would contain nearly 100 million barrels of oil and 2 trillions of cubic feet of gas.
Japan relies heavily on these hydrocarbon fields because of its strong energy dependence and almost total import. Because of its strong need for fossil fuels, Japan has entered into a conflict with China, as well as with South Korea or Russia for other batteries. It seems almost impossible to solve this conflict in the years to come where the needs are always bigger and bigger. But would it be possible for the two countries to agree on common management of these fishery and energy resources? To do so, would Japan need the support of a third party such as the UN or the United States because of China’s overly important economic, political and military position?
A geostrategic issue
Within the whole Asian region, the People’s Republic of China has been growing and wanting to take the place of the hegemon for the last twenty years and Japan is one of its historical competitors. The China Sea, and more particularly the archipelago and its Exclusive Economic Zone, is a point of contention between both because of its strategic position. Through its military naval power, the third-largest in the world can put pressure on the area to make the China Sea a “Chinese mare nostrum”, in its ambitions of the “pearl necklace” doctrine: an expansionist policy of China. But fortunately for Japan, the United States has no interest in allowing China access to this area and therefore remains installed in the region and Tokyo does not seem to want to give in.
This dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands fuels the nationalist parties of both countries and the Chinese Communist Party uses it as a national cause to take advantage of its loss of popularity. By firmly contesting Japan’s sovereignty over the islands, Beijing maintains its hegemonic will and thus holds its electoral line.
From the national, regional to international strategy, China and Japan are in a conflict that seems unsolvable. Should the United Nations or the USA take a firm stand and remove China once and for all or would this only fuel an armed conflict? Moreover, it is not sure that the United States or the UN wants to use coercive methods with China at the risk of upsetting this major partner. Would a third party be able to find common ground, power-sharing over the area, mixed control, or a political-military alliance in these islands?
Tensions in the East and South China Seas are likely to continue, and the archipelago is no exception because one thing is certain: neither Beijing nor Tokyo will let go of the matter any time soon. The dispute is not new and will grow stronger unless both sides decide to develop cooperative solutions.
Even if such solutions seem difficult to imagine, it is necessary to think about both issues: resource management and geostrategic monopoly. By taking into account the needs of both powers, a mediator could develop a negotiation leading to a fair agreement for both parties, and perhaps lead to more environmentally responsible actions. Concerning the geostrategic question, an abandonment of the whole archipelago by one of the parties seems impossible. Even if China, according to the history and the distribution of the islands in the China Sea, should not have any territory on this archipelago, we must be honest and understand that we will have to deal with it. That is why a sharing of the islands, perhaps depending on the negotiation of resources, must be done peacefully and jointly.
However, the one who will take the place of a mediator must be devoid of any interest and therefore should not be the United States for example.
CABESTAN Jean-Pierre, « A qui appartiennent les îles Dioaoyu ? », Persée [online], Perspectives chinoises, 1996, p.45-49. Available at : https://www.persee.fr/doc/perch_1021-9013_1996_num_37_1_2048
HAQUET Charles, « En mer de Chine, un jeu dangereux entre Pékin et Tokyo », L’express [online], Eaux troubles, 2019. Available at : https://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/monde/asie/en-mer-de-chine-un-jeu-dangereux-entre-pekin-et-tokyo_2064167.html
PAN Zhongqi, « Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands: The Penfing Controversy from the Chinese Perspective », SpringerLink [online], Journal of Chinese Political Science, 2007, p.71-92. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11366-007-9002-6