Defusing the Dispute Over Islands in the East China Sea

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan delivered a speech to the General Assembly on September 26, 2012 amid escalating tensions between his country and China over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Prime Minister Noda discussed what he called “three pearls of wisdom,” the last of which spoke to how human beings (and nation states) settle disputes reasonably and under rules.

“Humans have done more than just act on their lust for the use of force. We have also developed a skill to solving conflicts calmly by reason,” he said. “Any state has a responsibility to protect peace, ensure the safety of its people, and protect its sovereignty, territorial land and sea… At this critical juncture, we are to establish the ‘rule of law’ as a basis for global peace, stability, and prosperity.”

Although Prime Minister Noda never mentioned China, his advice applies to the two countries’ situation at hand, which lacks clear rule of law guidelines and has implications for peace, stability, and prosperity in the region. China and Japan are caught in a classic security dilemma, one that digs up historical contentions and evokes nationalistic fervor at the risk of bilateral trade and international stability.

Key Conclusions:

  • It is in both China and Japan’s economic interests to maintain good relations, yet we see brinkmanship among them. Both sides are beginning to mobilize their military forces, with Japan sending out coast guard cutters and China dispatching over a dozen surveillance ships.
  • National and international media outlets are at risk of being used as echo chambers that increase perceived threats and encourage national fervor, furthering insecurity and straining diplomatic relations.
  • Small confidence-building bilateral agreements may be the first step to defusing the dispute and preventing accidental escalation.


On the surface, the islands (“Senkaku” in Japanese and “Diaoyu” in Chinese) appear craggy and uninhabitable, with alleged shark-infested waters surrounding them. Sovereignty over the region, however, comes with about 200 nautical miles of territory, as well as access to fishing stocks and potentially rich seabed resources.

Tensions escalated when Japan bought and nationalized the islands on September 11, 2012 from someone who Japan claimed was the island’s private (Japanese) owner. The act prompted China to dispatch two marine surveillance ships in the area and “assert the country’s sovereignty” over the territory. Further complicating matters was Taiwan’s claim to the islands (“Tiaoyutai”), which caused a water-cannon scuff between Japanese and Taiwanese coast guard vessels on September 25, 2012.

Japan’s claim to the islands dates back to 1895 when the government conducted surveys around the region and ultimately integrated the islands into a larger island chain known as the Nansei Shoto Islands. This area was placed under US administrative control at the end of World War II under the Treaty of San Francisco and reverted to Japan in 1971. According to Japan, China did not express objection to US administration over the islands, nor did they claim sovereignty over the islands until potential petroleum resources were discovered in the late 1970s.

China’s State Council Information Office released a white paper on September 25, 2012 to defend its claims over the islands. The white paper cites historical texts, including a book from 1403 that refers to the islands with their Chinese name, Diaoyu. The white paper also refers to the treaty of San Francisco, which China was excluded from, as a “backroom deal” between the US and Japan that was “illegal and invalid.”

China’s narrative frames Japan’s actions as post-colonial and portrays Japan’s claim as a remnant of Japan’s imperial days. Anti-Japan demonstrations over the issue took place in more than 100 cities in China in 2012 and included protests in front of Japanese businesses. Anti-Japan activity on China’s Internet heightened on September 18, 2012, exactly 71 years after Japan invaded Manchuria. Chinese government’s selective allowance of demonstrations and potentially destabilizing Internet dissent, however, drew international criticism.

A contrasting narrative is one that portrays China as a rising power, and Japan as the victim of China’s expansion. Recent disputes in the South-China Sea involving China and ASEAN states raised similar issues and attitudes.

Japan’s strategy to gain sovereignty over the islands is to appeal to the international community and garnish international sentiments. Both Japan and China are unmoved in their stances, and both cite international law to justify their claims.

The dispute comes at a time of shifting dynamics between two of Asia’s economic giants. Many perceive China to be on the rise, and Japan to be in a slow decline. China’s military is seeing a new role as a tool for foreign relations. Japan’s military is also seeing a new role as a reemerging power, even after it downsized its military after WWII for access to US markets and for US protection. If China or Japan opens fire over the East China Sea, Japan may draw the US into the skirmish.

Domestic politics also play a role in the dispute. Both China and Japan are undergoing leadership transitions, and neither wants to appear weak in front of their population. China has already taken hard-line stances on sovereignty issues over Tibet and Taiwan for similar reasons. Japan faces elections next year, and the rising candidate, a conservative Liberal Democrat with a hard-line stance on foreign policies, may force the current administration to take a firm position on Japanese sovereignty. These factors would most likely encourage the stalemate in diplomatic relations between China and Japan.

Nationalistic fervor on both sides has restricted progress and aggravated the dispute, putting pressure on each government not to yield. National media coverage of the protests has incited anger among domestic populations by often portraying only one side of the dispute.

The political situation comes with economic implications for both states. Although control over the islands comes with fishing stocks and potential natural resources, the dispute has stymied trade and investment. China and Japan, the world’s second and third largest economies respectively, are interdependent. In 2011, China was Japan’s largest trading partner, and Japan was China’s second-largest trading partner after the United States. Political impasses have already led many Chinese to boycott Japanese businesses, and without mitigation, further consequences may ensue.

Small confidence-building measures are necessary to defuse tensions, and may allow for both nations to save face in front of their population leading up to leadership transitions. National and international media outlets also have a responsibility to stop fanning the flames of conflict and acting as echo chambers for unwarranted rising tensions.

George Gao is an intern at the International Peace Institute.

Vessels of the Taiwan Coast Guard Administration and Japan Coast Guard during a confrontation between the two on July 4, 2012.  Photo by Keelung Coast Guard