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Pacific Rivalry: Continued Escalation over the Senkaku and Daioyu Islands

Pacific Rivalry: Continued Escalation over the Senkaku and Daioyu Islands

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By: Lauren Webb

Despite the summer heat, thousands have gathered throughout China for anti-Japanese protests over disputed islands in the East China Sea, called the Senkaku Islands by Japan (part of Okinawa prefecture), or the Diaoyu Islands by China. China and Japan have each publicly claimed the islands for decades, but over this summer the dispute has again become a major concern in the Sino-Japanese geopolitical rivalry. In April, Tokyo’s governor announced plans to purchase the islands from its private owners. On August 15, Chinese activists landed on the island, raised flags, and were detained by Japan. (They were quickly deported back to Hong Kong.) Japan’s claims to the islands have prompted the worst anit-Japanese demonstrations China has experienced since 2004.

Considered on their own, the islands would likely be considered insignificant. The five small islands, three of which are privately owned, which make up the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have no indigenous inhabitants and no agricultural benefit. But due to both historical baggage and surrounding gas fields, both countries perceive the islands as critical to territorial sovereignty and relative strength. 

He says, she says

Both countries agree that in 1895 China ceded the islands to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which concluded the Sino-Japanese War. [i], Following World War II, the islands were brought under US control as part of the Treaty of San Francisco. Therein lies the dispute—Japan believes the islands were included in those returned to Japan in 1971; China, however, believes the islands should be included with the return of Taiwan to China.[ii]

To truly explain the conflict and rise of anti-Japanese protests throughout China, however, we have to look past the individual territorial claims. China and Japan’s relationship has been complicated at best since the Sino-Japanese war at the close of the 19th century. During the first half of the 20th century, China suffered at the hands of a militaristic Japan. The collective memory of China views Japan through the historical lens of the worst incidences of this relationship, which include the “Rape of Nanking” (during which it is estimated that 300,000 Chinese were killed) and the exploitation of Chinese youths and “comfort women” during World War II. China views its military strength and territorial sovereignty as necessary to prevent any future acts against it. They view Japan’s military build-ups and increased partnership with the United States as potential threats.

As generations too young to have played a role in World War II become the majority, Japanese citizens feel Chinese distrust stemming from the Japan’s WWII actions to be unfair. They point to Japan’s peaceful development since 1945 and its contributions to China’s economic development since the 1970’s. As for military build-ups, the Japanese government tends to point to China’s own growing defense budget as their defense.

Why now?

The 21st century has brought major geopolitical shifts, both in East Asia and throughout the world. China is now the second largest economy in the world and a major political influence in its own right. At the same time, Japan faces economic struggles and has discovered that—contrary to what it may have anticipated or hoped—China does not intend to treat Japan as the major economic or political leader in Asia.

China itself claims that it only did not challenge the transfer of the islands under the Treaty of San Francisco because, at that time, they were at the mercy of foreign aid, particularly from the United States. That is no longer the case for China. As it has grown in its economic power and international influence, China seeks a more dominant role in its own region. Economic and energy concerns may play a role in claims for this region. However, the underlying cause of the dispute is the desire of both countries to assert their dominance and influence, both in regional and bilateral politics, but also in the international arena.

Author’s Note: This article was originally written in the beginning of September. Since then, several events of importance have occurred. Japanese Prime Minsiter Yoshihiko Noda officially announced that Japan purchased the Senkaku Islands from its private owners. China has demanded that Japan reverse this decision and the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said at a press conference regarding the Islands that China “will staunchly protect national territorial integrity.”[iii] Meanwhile, anti-Japanese protests have continued throughout Japan. In response, several Japanese firms, including Honda, Mazda Motor Corp, and Seven & I Holdings, have temporarily shut down their factories and operations in parts of China.[iv]

Lauren Webb is a junior at Emory University majoring in Political Science and History. Her research and academic interests focus on India, China, and Japan, with a particular interest in the U.S.-Asia relationship. Lauren is spending the summer as an Archive Intern with Southwest Airlines and will be studying at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata, Japan during the Fall semester.


[i] "Q&A: China-Japan Islands Row." BBC News. BBC, 16 Aug. 2012. Web. 28 Aug. 2012. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11341139>.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Buckley, Chris, and Kiyoshi Takenaka. "China, Japan Dig in Heels as Rhetoric Escalates over Islands." Chicago Tribune. N.p., 11 Sept. 2012. Web. 17 Sept. 2012. <http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/sns-rt-us-japan-chinabre88a1k8-20120911,0,2982445.story>.

[iv] Takada, Kazunori, and Chris Buckley. "Japan Brandname Firms Shut China Plants after Protest Violence." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 17 Sept. 2012. Web. 17 Sept. 2012. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/17/us-china-japan-idUSBRE88F00H20120917>.

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