The Senkaku Islands are a group of rocky, deserted islets in the East China Sea that are known as a home for albatrosses.
But when it comes to politics, the islands are anything but tranquil, being the center of a dispute involving Japan, China and Taiwan, which all claim them as their own.
Called Diaoyu in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan, the islands measure some 7 sq. km in total.
For more than three decades, the Japan Coast Guard has stationed at least one patrol ship in the waters surrounding the islands 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to prevent intrusions.
Despite Japan’s vigilance, activists from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have repeatedly tried to land on the islands, as seven from the mainland successfully did Wednesday.
Both China and Taiwan maintain that the islands are historically part of their territory, while Japan claims that they only started raising the issue of ownership after 1968 — when the U.N. Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East concluded that large-scale oil reserves may exist on the continental shelf under the surrounding sea.
“One major reason for China’s persistence regarding the islands is the presence of (oil) resources,” said Tomoyuki Kojima, a professor at Keio University and a noted China expert.
Kojima pointed out that China’s rise has turned it into a major oil importer, forcing it to seek a stable energy supply to keep its economic engine going.
According to forecasts by the government-affiliated Institute of Energy Economics, China’s total energy consumption in 2020 will reach a level equivalent to 2.1 billion tons of oil, up 2.2-fold from the 2000 figure.
Another reason China wants sovereignty over the Senkakus is probably to control the sealanes around Taiwan, Kojima said.
“China is now aiming to become a superpower that can compare with the United States by 2050,” Kojima said. “For that purpose, it is trying to exert its influence not only on land but also at sea.”
Tensions between China and Japan in the wake of the activists’ Wednesday landing could temporarily hurt bilateral relations, possibly leading to cancellation of Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi’s planned visit to China next month, he said.
But the two nations are unlikely to push things to a critical point given their deep mutual economic dependence, and the territorial dispute will continue to fester as it has for decades, Kojima said.
Japan says it declared in January 1895 that the Senkaku Islands were incorporated into its territory, after conducting roughly 10 years of thorough examination to confirm that there was no trace of the islands having been under China’s control.
After Japan’s World War II defeat, the Senkaku Islands were placed under U.S. administration. They were returned to Japan based on a 1971 Japan-U.S. agreement, along with the reversion of Okinawa, according to the Foreign Ministry.
“The facts outlined herein clearly indicate the status of the Senkaku Islands being part of the territory of Japan,” the ministry says on its Web site.
Meanwhile, China has argued that the Senkaku Islands are attached to Taiwan and are part of its territory.
Japan gained control of Taiwan from the Qing Dynasty in the Shimonoseki Treaty that ended the Sino-Japan War and took effect in May 1895, and lost it when it accepted the 1945 Potsdam Declaration.
Japan says the areas that were abandoned do not include the Senkaku Islands, while China, which claims they are part of Taiwan, says they do.