Red-hot Tensions In East China Sea Thrust Sino-Japanese Relations Onto World Stage Part 1

By Tim Daiss

International media have flooded their news programs with updates, sometimes perplexing, sometimes alarming and often incomplete, over recent tensions between China and Japan in the East China Sea, while images of Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese ships square off over what looks like a patch of rocks in the ocean.

After Japan purchased three tiny islands in a contested area in the East China Sea from their private owner on September 11, reports covering Chinese economic retaliation against Japanese interests, livid anti-Japanese protests in more than 100 Chinese cities, and fiery words between Chinese and Japanese diplomats at the United Nations, abound.

The islets in question form part of the (Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan: DSI) island chain, which are claimed by China, Taiwan and Japan concurrently. DSI consists of five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks, approximately 120 nautical miles southeast of Okinawa, and are situated on a continental shelf with the hydrocarbon rich Xihu/Okinawa trough (Xihu in China and Okinawa in Japan: X/O) to the south separating them from the nearby Japanese Ryuku Islands.

Against this backdrop, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda took to the international stage two weeks ago. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 27 the Japanese politician was firm, even hawkish. In carefully scripted language, he reiterated his country’s position, calling for the strengthening of the rule of law to resolve conflicts peacefully.

He insisted that there could be no compromise on the ownership of the disputed island chain and denounced attacks on Japanese interests.

Though not mentioning China by name, his message was clear. He vowed to protect Japan’s land and seas and decried attempts by countries, meaning China, to impose their will on others through force or threat.

However tensions between China and Japan are nothing new. Their roots can be traced back to the 1895 Sino-Japanese War that saw two geopolitical paradigm shifts. That war thrust Japan, who just a few decades earlier was a backwater Asian country run by feudal lords and Samurai, onto the world stage as an emerging power. It also reinforced China’s weakness at that time, a long line of humiliations by Japan and Western powers that sting the Chinese conscience to this day, and subsequently fuels new found Chinese nationalism, often hyper Chinese nationalism, as that country takes its place in international affairs.

Animosity worsened after Japan’s 1937 occupation of northern and coastal China during World War II and subsequent war crimes and atrocities against China. It has festered since then with no end in sight.

Until the 1895 Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan (as part of China) was in charge of the management of DSI. At the end of the war Japan assumed control of DSI as well as Taiwan. Japan also asserts that it incorporated DSI at the time as vacant territory (terra nullis) and has had continuous administration of the islands since that time.

However after Japan’s defeat in World War II, Japan ceded Taiwan to China, but no mention was made of DSI in any period documents. For several decades after World War II the United States administered the islands as part of the post-war occupation of Okinawa. Yet at that time it appears that no one cared – to most they were just a scratch of rocks and sand in the ocean. All of that changed in 1969 when the United Nations issued a report stating that large hydrocarbon deposits could exist in the waters around DSI. China was quick to act. In May the next year she claimed the islands after Japan and Taiwan held talks on joint exploration in the East China Sea. Then the picture becomes even more problematical. The United States and Japan signed the Okinawa Reversion Treaty returning the islands to Japanese control – which resulted in protests from both China and Taiwan. And, to date Japan holds administrative control over DSI while all three: China, Japan and Taiwan claim ownership.


The dispute resolves around two issues; demarcating the East China Sea boundary between each country and sovereignty over DSI.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) offers little remedy for the competing claimants in this matter. The 1982 Convention created a number of guidelines concerning the islands, continental shelves, exclusive economic zones (EEZ), enclosed seas and territorial areas.

However just like other disputed claims in the area, namely the South China Sea dispute between China and the Philippines as well as between China and Vietnam over the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, UNCLOS states that countries with overlapping claims must resolve them by “good faith negotiations.” Not only does China and Japan offer differing historical claims but also interpret UNCLOS differently. Japan for her part defines its boundary using the EEZ and continental shelf. Both China and Taiwan (which have parallel claims) define their boundaries using UNCLOS’ continental shelf principle, but extend their territorial claims using the concept of a natural extension of its continental shelf. Overlapping claims comprise approximately 81,000 square miles. Japan proposed a median line as a means to resolve the issue but China refuses to consider that option.

China and Japan have held talks several times since 2004 to settle the matter but Taiwan has not participated. Despite high-level negotiations between China and Japan, they have not yet been able to resolve the territorial dispute.

Carlyle Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy told Energy Tribune that in a legal sense the key factor is continual occupation and effective administration over the DSI.

“There is no record I am aware of that China (either Nationalist or Communist) contested America’s occupation of Japan and control over the Senkakus,” he said.

He added that the only realistic mechanism is for China and Japan to reach a diplomatic understanding not to escalate their dispute after the current contretemps cool down.

Dr. Zha Daojiong, a professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University in Beijing, has a different take. “Japan, through a treaty with the Qing Dynasty, annexed Taiwan and its adjacent islands in 1895, the [DSI] islands were ‘assumed’ to be in that package, since the Qing government had not been specific about Taiwan’s geographical jurisdiction,” he told Energy Tribune.

Zha added that the terra nullis argument is something for the UN court of justice to ascertain.

Yoshihide Soeya, director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Keio University in Tokyo, offers another analysis. He told Energy Tribune that the UNCLOS, which calls for parties with conflicting claims to work out disagreements among themselves, has no chance of working as long as the question remains that of Chinese nationalism.


The East China Sea comprises an area of approximately 480,000 square miles and is a semi-closed body of water bordered by the Yellow Sea to the north, the South China Sea and Taiwan to the south and Japan’s Ryukyu and Kyushu Islands to the east, while the Chinese mainland is to the west. The East China Sea remains under explored in terms of hydrocarbons.

The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) states that between 60 and 100 billion barrels of oil in proven and probable reserves are in the East China Sea. Chinese claims, just like they are in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, are higher. They place undiscovered oil as high as 70 to 160 billion barrels for the entire East China Sea, mostly in the X/O trough, just south of DSI. Foreign estimates fall closer to the middle of that range at 100 billion barrels of oil.

Unproven natural gas reserves estimates for the East China Sea also vary. A 1970 Japanese survey places unproven reserves at nearly 7 trillion cubic feet (Tcf). China places unproven reserves for the East China Sea at 175 to 210 Tcf. EIA estimates that the entire East China Sea has between 1 and 2 Tcf in proven and probable natural gas reserves.

The disputed X/O trough is 620 miles long, 3,300 to 6,500 feet deep and is the area in which both countries are currently concentrating oil and gas extraction activities. Both countries are unofficially adhering to a median line concept. Chinese oil estimates in the X/O trough are 20 million barrels of oil reserve and 17.5 Tcf of natural gas. Currently, there are six contested fields in the X/O trough. Japan is concerned that production from one of China’s X/O fields is depleting resources from its side of the median line.

In 2005 Japan authorized exploration activities and sent a ship to conduct seismic surveys in the area but the vessel left when Chinese warships arrived.

Next week, part two will take a look at how hydrocarbons factor into the dispute, how the row has brought China and Taiwan together in an unanticipated act of geopolitical unity while at the same time stoking the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment. The US position on the dispute will also be addressed.

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