The rocks that could start a war

Hiroyasu Hanai gesticulates in a clipped, military fashion. Like an affable Japanese George Patton, he gestures here and there at powerpoint slides in the ship’s boardroom.

Hiroyasu is a genial, relaxed sort, not given to alarmism or over-excitement. He certainly doesn’t seem like a man who, just yesterday, was involved in a minor diplomatic incident. Yet not 24 hours previous, Hiroyasu, a Rear Admiral Commander in the Japanese Coastguard, came across four Chinese vessels whilst patrolling the waters near the Senkaku Islands. 

Both countries' presence near the islands is controversial, as Japan, China, and Taiwan claim the islands as their own and yet the dispute is the very reason both the Japanese and Chinese coastguards are there in the first place. The smattering of uninhabited, inhospitable islands in the East China Sea — three are so small they’re technically rocks, not islands — have become the latest theatre of Chinese expansionism.

The contemporary dispute over the islands can be traced back to 1972, when the United States prepared to hand administered territory back to Japan. Earlier, in 1969, a UN report suggested there may be vast oil reserves in the sea surrounding the Senkakus. This appears to have piqued the interest of China, which disputed the handover.

China’s claim rests on its discovery of the islands, which it calls the Diaoyus, during the Ming dynasty in the 15th century. But Japan has a similarly long history in the East China Sea and claimed the islands as Japanese territory in 1895 in the midst of the first Sino-Japanese war, citing them as terra nullius — a legal designation that means they belonged to no-one, as they were uninhabited. 

Rear Admiral Commander Hiroyasu Hanai. Photo: Thomas Coughlan

A small number of Japanese came to live on the island, strengthening Japan’s claim, but the peace agreement following the war was inconclusive. The Senkaku Islands are exactly 170 km from Taiwan, which was then Chinese and which mainland China still claims, and 170km from Ishigaki, an island in Japan’s Okinawa prefecture. The peace agreement between Japan and China after the war gave the island of Taiwan to China, and China alleges the Senkakus came as part of the deal.

 World War II provoked another frenzy of creative cartography. As peace agreements and declarations redrew borders throughout the world, the minuscule Senkaku Islands managed to escape special attention. China now points towards the Potsdam declaration, which appeared to confine Japan’s territory mostly to the main islands, possibly (although not explicitly) excluding the Senkakus. 

Japan, in turn, rests its claim on another piece of post-war statecraft. After the war, the United States took over the administration of Japan’s southern islands, including the Okinawa prefecture, where the Sekenku islands are located. The San Francisco Peace Treaty between the United States and Japan explicitly recognised the Ryuku islands — potentially, although not explicitly including the Senkakus — as Japanese, and promised to return them to Japan after a period of administration by the US.

Pointedly, the US has made no explicit pronouncements for or against Japan’s control over the Senkakus. The US State Department has said that it holds no official position. Japan doesn’t seem too bothered with the details. A recognition of sovereignty would be nice, but it has something far more powerful up its sleeve: the inclusion of the islands in its defence treaty with the United States. 

Japan’s closest military ally is the United States. The countries have a defence alliance dating back to 1954. It obliges the United States to come to the defence of Japan in the event of an attack on its territory. In spite of its lukewarm stance on the Senkaku Islands, the Obama administration clarified in 2012 that the islands were covered by the agreement. 

If China attacked the islands and the treaty was activated, it would require the United States to wage war on China in defence of the five small islands and three rocks sitting in the East China Sea.  

To those who care, the islands have become a locus for the resurgent nationalism. Taiwanese activists occasionally enter the waters around the island, and in 1996 a right wing youth group landed on the islands and build a lighthouse, interpreted by China as a provocative gesture.

 The Japanese state is not afraid of provocative gestures on its own part. In 2012, it purchased the islands meaning they are not just part of Japanese territory – they’re now owned by the state too. 

The gesture provoked rage from within China, where mass riots broke out across the country. Some protestors even took to torching Japanese cars. The dissident artist Ai Weiwei witnessed rioters surrounding the US ambassador's car. He claimed the riots were “prepared by officials”. He later included a scale model of the islands in a Berlin exhibition, with the tongue-in-cheek title, “evidence”. 

Ai Weiwei's rendering of the Senkaku Islands. Photo: Getty. 

China’s reaction was not confined to the mainland. Beginning in 2012, Chinese ships, both coastguard vessels and private fishing ships, began making regular incursions into the waters around the Senkakus. The Japanese Coast Guard responds by shadowing the vessels until they leave. Coastguard ships are each appointed with a Chinese speaker and a large LED sign, which projects messages in Chinese and Japanese, asking the vessels to leave. 

Ishigaki doesn’t feel like the epicentre of World War III. Disaster tourists hoping for echoes of Sarajevo circa 1914 will be disappointed. It’s a tourist spot, with a pleasant climate, and a laid-back attitude. “Island-time,” the usually punctual and punctilious mainlanders explain with a mixture of envy and disdain.

People on Ishigaki are relatively sanguine about the threat. The mayor of Ishigaki City, Yoshitaka Nakayama complains that the rich waters around the Senkaku islands would be useful for the island’s fishermen, who are no longer allowed to fish there, but he says that fisherman have managed to find other rich stocks, minimising the economic fallout.

Ishigaki Mayor Yoshitaka Nakayama 

Fishermen themselves don’t seem that upset. Members of the Yaeyama Fishermen's Cooperative, a group representing Ishigaki fisherman say it’s still possible to make between ¥10 and ¥40 million (NZ$135,000-540,000) in the waters they are allowed to fish in. They’re relatively relaxed about the Chinese incursions, which don’t disrupt them. 

Hiroyasu and the coastguard are charged with maintaining the status quo, monitoring foreign vessels and ensuring the dispute doesn’t boil over into anything more serious. He’s already met four foreign vessels at sea and it’s not even February. The two coast guards face off, each trailing, or sailing parallel to the other. 

But a fellow journalist in Ishigaki remarks the situation is more a cold peace, than a cold war. Each side knows where it is acceptably allowed to sail and each side communicates with the other during exercises, using translators. There seems to be a difference between acceptable and unacceptable provocation. While the United States and its allies decry China’s violations of the rules-based international order, it seems to be conducting what looks like a rules-based territorial dispute.

But a cold peace can turn into a hot war and China has other interests, besides oil. The islands form part of Japan’s island chain, blocking China’s free entry to the Pacific Ocean, hemming the rising power in. Some believe China’s real objective is to take control of the Miyako strait, allowing Chinese vessels to more easily enter the open Pacific. 

There are historical issues at play too, like China’s decades-long quest to retake Taiwan from Nationalist dissidents. China has already said it could not rule out using force to retake the island. Such a move could quickly put the Senkaku islands and Ishigaki into the eye of a potentially bloody Pacific conflict. 

Thomas Coughlan travelled to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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