The uninhabited Senkaku Islands of Japan, claimed by both China and Taiwan under the name Diaoyutai, may seem of minor significance to observers outside the region. These eight uninhabited islands have a land area of only 6.3 km2 and a highest elevation of 383m. Yet every time Japan affirms its sovereignty over the islets, it is met with rebuttals from Beijing and Taipei. In September 2010, the Japanese arrest of a Chinese captain whose “fishing boat” collided with a Japanese coast guard vessel even led to public protests in China – with police approval. Leaked video footage showing the boat ramming the coast guard patrol went viral on YouTube. In the most recent dispute, Beijing and Taipei both protested Tokyo’s decision this month to name the smallest islands in the archipelago.

The issue of territorial administration seems quite unambiguous. In the late 19th century, following the 1879 annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom into Okinawa Prefecture, Japanese surveyors confirmed that the islands were uninhabited. On January 14, 1895, Japan erected a marker to indicate that the Senkaku Islands are part of the Nansei Shoto island chain. At the conclusion of World War II, Article 3 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty placed these islands under U.S. administration. In 1971, the islands were returned to Japan as part of the U.S.-Japan Okinawa Reversion Agreement. Beijing and Taipei began showing interest in the islands only in the 1970s, after research demonstrated that they are likely to contain important oil and mineral resources. The United States has confirmed that the islands are included in the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States.

In light of China’s increasing military expenditures and assertiveness about the Senkaku Islands, Japan has reinforced the presence of its Self Defence Forces in this previously demilitarized region of the Western Pacific. In November 2011, Japan announced that it was installing a new 100-man unit on Yonaguni Island (28.8 km2), just 100 km east of Hualien, Taiwan. Construction is scheduled to be finished by 2015. This announcement followed Japan’s 2010 unilateral extension of its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) some 22km west of Yonaguni—without consulting Taipei, which had until that point controlled air traffic in the area. These deployments will make it easier for Japan to enforce its sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands and control the strategic Miyako Channel in the unlikely event of maritime conflict.

The Senkaku issue is unlikely to be forgotten in either Beijing or Taipei. Anti-Japanese sentiments, flamed up by official mobilization of wartime memories, form an integral part of Chinese nationalist ideology. Political players in Beijing find it occasionally useful to portray Japan’s moves in the “Diaoyutai” as proof of Japanese aggression against a rising China, and as a reminder that they can protect China from such threats. These themes resonate in some circles in Taiwan. President Ma Ying-jeou even wrote his thesis (“Trouble over Oily Waters”) on this issue in 1980 while he was a student at Harvard. Several times in the 1990s and 2000s, Chinese nationalists from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong jointly protested Japanese control of the islands. In 2004, Chinese activists were arrested by Okinawan authorities for landing illegally. In 2008, shortly after Ma was inaugurated as President, a boat of Chinese nationalist protesters from Taiwan, escorted by five ROC Coast Guard vessels, circumnavigated the largest island but left Japanese waters without disembarking.

At a time of economic rapprochement between Beijing and Taipei, the Senkaku Islands emerge as a potent symbol of shared Chinese national identity. President Ma’s repeated affirmations that the islands belong to Ilan County of Taiwan may be understood in this light. On Taiwan, where 4.1% of the population identify as Chinese, 39% as both Chinese and Taiwanese, and 54% as Taiwanese only, this idea resonates with an important electoral minority. The evocation of Senkaku, moreover, reveals undercurrents in Taiwan’s political landscape. Whereas Chinese nationalist Ma affirms his country’s sovereignty over the islands, independence-leaning former President Lee Teng-hui conceded after leaving office that the islands are Japanese. Ma has been sending signals to Beijing that both sides of the Taiwan Straits are concerned about Senkaku, but simultaneously has had to avoid the impression in Taiwan that he is leaning too closely toward China. On March 7, after having protested Japan’s naming of small islands, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially announced that they are not aligned with Beijing on this issue.

As direct military conflict between Japan and China about the Senkakus remains highly unlikely in the near future, the short-term threat is the use of Diaoyutai as a symbolic touchstone of Chinese nationalism. Some observers have suggested that Chinese protests about the islands, and Chinese military activities in the nearby waters, are signs of power struggles in Beijing. Yet such activities do not contribute to Japanese trust toward China or to positive international perceptions about China’s military intentions. In fact, China’s belligerence about the Senkaku Islands only reinforces fears about Chinese irredentism. Taiwan’s claims are also problematic. Even mistaken impressions of a common front between Beijing and Taipei on this issue could have negative impacts on Taiwan’s relations with Japan (which remains its closest and most natural ally).

Although these islands may seem far from Canada, our diplomats and policy makers cannot afford to ignore the issue. Any military conflict between China and Japan about the Senkaku Islands, if it triggered use of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, would likely involve the United States and Canada. If we wish to prevent such a scenario from happening, we should actively engage China through trade, while making it clear that we do not support revanchist claims in any form. We should simultaneously strengthen our military and political ties with Japan, implicitly giving our support to a normalization of the Japanese military. We should make it clear that Japan is Canada’s most important strategic ally in Asia. If we navigate well these difficult diplomatic waters, we will have made a small contribution to lasting peace.

On Friday March 16, there will be a public lecture at the University of Ottawa on Taiwan and the East Asian Seas.

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