A Risky Game Over Japan’s Disputed Islands

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Part of the disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, Diaoyu in China.

TOKYO – Whether it’s a genuine attempt to steer Japan’s foreign policy or a clever ploy to annoy political leaders in both Japan and China, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s plan to buy three disputed islands in the East China Sea is a dangerous game that has the potential to drag both Japan and the U.S. into a shooting war.

“This is a very serious issue and it’s full of uncertainties. If it’s not handled properly it could very well lead to armed conflict,” says Kazuhiko Togo, director of Kyoto Sangyo University’s Institute for World Affairs, and author of Japan’s Territorial Issues: The Northern Territories, Takeshima and the Senkaku Islands. 

Ishihara startled just about everyone this week when he announced plans for Tokyo Prefecture to buy three tiny islands in the Senkaku chain from private owners. He said the aim is to “protect” the islands from Chinese encroachment. Both China and Taiwan claim the islands, which they call the Diaoyou Islands, and officials in China were quick to denounce Ishihara’s plans.

“The Diaoyou Islands have been China’s inherent territory since ancient times and China holds indisputable sovereignty over them,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Japan and China nearly came to blows over the islands in 2010 when a Chinese fishing trawler rammed a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in nearby waters. Japan seized the fishing boat and crew, but released them weeks later after massive street protests in Chinese cities and heavy economic and political pressure from Beijing.

U.S. forces were not involved in the 2010 incident, but could be dragged into any new hostilities. The United States is pledged to defend Japan under the terms of the Mutual Security Treaty, which the U.S. interprets as applying to all “territories under the administration of Japan.” The U.S. has about 50,000 troops in Japan, including the powerful 7th Fleet.

Although the Senkakus are uninhabited (and largely uninhabitable), they could be immensely valuable. Under the international law of the sea, control of the Senkakus could convey exclusive economic rights to nearly 20,000 square miles of undersea resources, including oil and gas reserves that are believed to rival those of the Persian Gulf.

China has built up its naval forces in recent years and made increasingly aggressive territorial claims in both the East China and South China seas. Control of the Senkakus would give China’s navy additional breathing room.

“This is one of Asia’s most dangerous flash points,” says Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky, an attorney and authority on international law who has written extensively on the Senkaku dispute.


The Senkakus are made up of eight tiny islands and rock outcroppings at the tip of Japan’s southern islands chain. Three of the islands are leased to the national government, which forbids development.

Ishihara says the sale will take place after the current leases expire next April, but the deal is by no means certain.  If the purchase price exceeds 40 million Yen ($489,000), Ishihara would need approval from the metropolitan assembly. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda also has said he would consider buying the islands outright — presumably to keep them out of Ishihara’s hands.

A 79-year-old conservative, Ishihara has a penchant for controversy, and his motives for the purchase — which he announced in Washington — remain suspect. Ishihara has claimed that the Nanking Massacre during the Second World War was a lie invented by the Chinese, and was forced to apologize last year for saying the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami were “divine punishment” for the “egoism” of Japanese people. He has blamed foreigners for increased crime in Japan, and made derogatory comments about women and gays. He reportedly is considering creating a new political party and making a run at national office.

Yoji Koda, former head of the joint staff for Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, says that as China’s naval capabilities increase, Japan will come under increasing pressure from China to give up its claim on the Senkakus. He says Ishihara deserves credit at least for forcing a public discussion of the Senkakus controversy sooner rather than later.

“The official government position has been that ‘There is no territorial issue, so there is no reason to discuss it.’ But the reality is, there really is an issue,” says Koda. “Ishihara made that point in clear and unambiguous language, so now any (aggressive) reaction from China will be seen by the world community as a threat to Japanese territory. This puts China in a very difficult position.”

And perhaps the U.S. and Japan, as well.