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Territorial Disputes Japan has territorial issues with three of its neighbours. Each and every instance seems intractable, and each is a major issue in Japan’s relations with those neighbours. North of Hokkaido, Japan claims the four islands that it calls the ‘Northern Territories’. To Japan’s northwest is Takeshima, claimed by the South Koreans. West of Japan is the Senkakus, which China claims. Nearby lie lucrative gas fields that could ease the burden of energy security on both sides.This post is the second of three that examine the territorial disputes of Japan. Today we will examine the disputes between China and Japan. It is about a whole lot more than barren islands. Each side wishes to extend its exclusive economic zone around the gas and oil fields of the East China Sea. To make things even more interesting, the Republic of China in Taiwan also lays claim to the islands which will henceforth be referred to as the Pinnacle Islands (as named by British navigators) for the sake of neutrality.

The Pinnacle Islands

Senkaku Islands


There are eight Pinnacle Islands, each little more than barren rocks (much like the Liancourt Rocks). To the Japanese, they are Senkaku Shotou (尖閣諸島). To the Chinese, they are Diàoyútái Qúndǎo (釣魚台群島). They lie 170km from the nearest Japanese island (Ishigaki) and Taiwan. Currently they are administered by Japan (as part of Ishigaki City in Okinawa Prefecture), but both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) claim the islands are part of the Taiwan Province.

History of the Pinnacle Islands Dispute

The origins of the dispute can be found in Meiji era Japan. In 1885, the Meiji government conducted a survey of the islands and found them to be uninhabited. Chinese claims to the islands lay in the Qing Dynasty conquering of Taiwan in 1683 whereby they laid claim to its surrounding islands too. However, the remote islands were claimed by Japan in 1895, and granted to them in the Treaty of Shimonoseki which ended the First Sino-Japanese War (although the islands are not explicitly named):

“Article 2: China cedes to Japan in perpetuity and full sovereignty the following territories, together with all fortifications, arsenals, and public property thereon:— […]

(b) The island of Formosa, together with all islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Formosa.”

This was held to be an ‘unequal treaty’ by the People’s Republic of China, who claim “in its declaration of war against Japan, the Chinese government proclaimed the abrogation of all unequal treaties concluded with Japan and declared the recovery of Taiwan and Penghu Islands.” This declaration of war was proclaimed in 1941 and the section referred to is:

“The Chinese Government hereby formally declares war on Japan. The Chinese Government further declares that all treaties, conventions, agreements and contracts regarding relations between China and Japan are and remain null and void.”

Furthermore, with their surrender, Japan agreed to the Potsdam Agreement and the Cairo Declaration. The latter explicitly mentioned Taiwan (Formosa):

The Three Great Allies are fighting this war to restrain and punish the aggression of Japan. They covet no gain for themselves and have no thought of territorial expansion. It is their purpose that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China. Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed. The aforesaid three great powers, mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.

As the Chinese consider the Pinnacle Islands part of Taiwan, this is reason enough for them to feel justified in their indignation. For Japan, it claimed these islands as terra nullius (empty land) and as an integral part of the Ryukyu Islands (Nansei Shotou) which is integral to Japan itself.

Complications of China’s Claim

China’s claim to the Pinnacle Islands is strongly linked to its claim to Taiwan. Both the Republic and People’s Republic consider the islands part of Taiwan, the only difference is that the Republic of China sees an independent Taiwan whereas the People’s Republic of China sees only “one China”.

To make matters even worse, China has other disputes, some of which involve islands. It claims the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. A soft position on the Pinnacle Islands might also been seen as a softer position on these other disputes. Thus the stakes for China are quite high.

Economic Incentives

In 1968, the UN Committee for the Coordination of Joint Prospecting for Mineral Resources in Asian Offshore Areas (CCOP) and the US Naval Oceanographic Office conducted a survey of the continental shelf between Japan and Taiwan and announced that there was a ‘high probability … that [it] may be one of the most prolific oil and gas reservoirs in the world’. [1] Initially the dispute was between Taiwan and Japan, however in 1972 Japan ‘derecognised’ the Republic of China when it normalised relations with the People’s Republic of China. From then on, Taipei’s claims have been framed within the context of Beijing’s claims. [2] The normalisation negotiations fanned the flames of the dispute with all three sides rallying around the issue, however, Zhou Enlai swept it under the carpet for the benefit of China’s negotiations at a time when China was feeling increasingly threatened by the Soviet Union. [3]

Although the Pinnacle Islands are used for nationalistic purposes, the engagement of both governments is due to economic interests. That the US administrated that area as part of its occupation of Japan was not contested by either Chinese party. [4] It was the 1968 survey that enflamed the issue and from then on it has been sustained by the dispute over China and Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

East China Sea Dispute

The map above shows two things. Firstly, it shows the location of the Chunxiao Gas Fields (one of three gas fields), straddling the EEZ claimed by Japan. It also shows that China claims a border extremely close (relatively speaking) to the main Ryukyu Islands. By comparison, Japan’s seems more central.

East China Sea Gas Fields

This map (from the Economist, via The Oil Drum) shows a second gas field (although I imagine they tap the same stock). However, this map illustrates the role of the Pinnacle Islands far better than the previous map. They lie in the centre of the claimed boundaries, and aid both sides in laying claim to the energy fields.

At stake is an estimated 7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and up to 100 billion barrels of oil. Furthermore, both states could do with the added security of such a supply: Japan cannot help but rely on foreign energy while China’s large population and rising economy create a thirst for fuel.

For Japan, the issue is further complicated by the no-win situation in which it finds itself. If China’s EEZ claims are justified, then Japan has no access whatsoever to the East China Sea oil/gas reserves. However, even if Japan’s equidistant borders (when including the Pinnacle Islands) are correct, the Chinese could siphon gas from across the boundary, diminishing Japan’s stake. China has already begun drilling in the vicinity of the fields.





There is another dispute between Japan and China, this time to Japan’s south. This small collection of ‘islands’, or ‘rocks’ for China, lie midway between Taiwan and Guam. The location is a strategic one, a desirable sinking ground for Chinese submarines in the event of a US fleet steaming over to Taiwan (under a situation of cross-Strait warfare).

This dispute is not about ownership, but about definitions and EEZs. If Okinotorishima is just a collection of reefs and rocks, it cannot be used as a point for Japan’s EEZ under international law. If Japan’s EEZ is based on Okinotorishima, then the Chinese cannot survey the area, which is something they would wish to do in the event of strategic necessity. For China it is a security issue, for Japan it is a domestic concern only. Make up your own minds as to whether it is a series of rocks or islands: Wikipedia has a nice elevation map, and an oblique photograph is included below.

Okinotorishima Photograph

Also, for your consideration, is the definition of an island from Part VIII, Article 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea:

“1. An island is a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide.

“2. Except as provided for in paragraph 3, the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf of an island are determined in accordance with the provisions of this Convention applicable to other land territory.

“3. Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.”

Shintaro Ishihara at Okinotorishima To me, the issue that China should press is the third paragraph, not the definition. If Okinotorishima cannot support life (human or economic) then it cannot be part of the EEZ. It seems apparent to me that it cannot fulfil this part of the requirements. With regards to this, Shintaro Ishihara has made a stand on the issue: since 1932 (with intervals) Japan spent approximately US$740 million in attempting to build and maintain a residence there. Fishing boats have attempted to demonstrate that economic life is possible, and Japan has further developed the islets by placing an address plate there, and building a lighthouse. Also, a radar system was installed there to keep tabs on vessels in the area. However, what Ishihara is standing on is the largest dry ground in the reef, a circle of concrete. Behind him you can make out the concrete caltrop sea-defences to stop the erosion of the islets. It is surely a losing battle.



Japan and China have three disputes. In the East China Sea they dispute their EEZs and thus the legitimacy of their claims to the hydrocarbon deposits there. Part of this dispute is the claim to the Pinnacle Islands which are crucial to Japan’s claim on the gas and oil fields. It is also the third most probably flashpoint in Northeast Asia after North Korea and Taiwan. The final dispute is over Japan’s claim of a legitimate EEZ extending out to Okinotorishima.

The Pinnacle Islands dispute should be seen in Japan’s favour, in my opinion. The islands were uninhabited when Japan claimed them, and the Ming and Qing Dynasty claims appear to be weak in substance. Japan’s de facto sovereignty over the islands is now long standing.

As for the East China Sea EEZs and the energy reserves, well, China’s EEZ extends far further than the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea would allow. Efforts must be taken to recognise (or improve) Japan’s fairer boundary and exploitation of the resources along that boundary should be shared ventures.

As for Okinotorishima, the islets are barely peeking above the waves and are at risk from being submerged (particularly when those icecaps start melting). Japan’s claim that they are islands appears to be based on security logic and national pride. If they are claiming island status in order to prevent the Chinese from conducting seabed mapping surveys, then they may be too late, and if they are doing it at the request of the US in the event of a Taiwan crisis, I see no reason why remote sensors could not perform the task required.

All in all, the situation is messy, as we have seen in the disputes with other countries. For me, however, the disputes with China are some of the most tenuous, heavily reliant on later developments to elevate them to the level of government consciousness. With the 1968 survey (or without the resources) the Pinnacle Islands dispute and the East China Sea dispute would be non-existent, and without the creation of EEZs in 1982, the East China Sea dispute and Okinotorishima issue would also be non-existent. At least with the Liancourt Rocks and Northern Territories there are longer standing concerns at stake. However, neither of those disputes have the significant influence of energy affecting them (if we assume that Japan’s claims to the Northern Territories does not include Sakhalin). With the amount of money at stake and with the energy needs of China and Japan, it is little wonder that this final collection of desired ground is the also the most volatile.

Referenced Articles

[1] HARRISON, S. S. (1975) ‘Time Bomb in East Asia’, Foreign Policy No. 20 (Autumn 1975): 3-27 [Accessed 27 Mar 2007: LINK – JSTOR access & subscription required.] pp. 7-8

[2] SU, S. W. (2005) ‘The Territorial Dispute over the Tiaoyu/Senkaku Islands: An Update’, Ocean Development & International Law No. 36: 45-61, p. 47

[3] BLANCHARD, J. M. F. (2000) ‘The U. S. Role in the Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, 1945-1971’, The China Quarterly No. 161 (March 2000): 95-123 [Accessed 27 Mar 2007: LINK – JSTOR access & subscription required.] p. 99

[4] Ibid.


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  1. […] posts at my old blog: Desired Ground: Part One (Northern Territories), Part Two (Takeshima), and Part Three (Senkakus) Share and […]

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