Tokyo and Beijing claim that the uninhabited islands, known as Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China as their own, have been managed by Japan since 1972.
Tensions over the 1,200-mile (1,900-kilometer) rocky chain southwest of Tokyo have been simmering for years, and with claims for hundreds of years, neither Japan nor China is likely to retreat into land that is considered a national birth right. two capitals.
In this respect, the islands are not opposed to the rocky heights of the Himalayas, where decades of tension erupted on an undefined border between China and India on Monday night, sparking a clash that killed at least 20 Indian troops. .
The fighting, though deadly, has been relatively limited – both sides have eased tensions in recent days.
But an unexpected escalation in Senkaku / Diaoyus could provoke a military confrontation between China and the United States.
Fears of a possible confrontation escalated last week with the Japanese Coast Guard announcing that Chinese government ships had been spotted in the waters off the Senakaku / Diaoyu Islands every day since mid-April, setting a new record for the number of consecutive days.
By Friday, those remarks had reached 67 days.
Taking unbearable stances
In response to the growing Chinese presence, Yoshihide Suga, the secretary-general of Japan’s cabinet, reaffirmed Tokyo’s determination in a press conference last Wednesday.
“The Senkaku Islands are under our control and are undoubtedly our territory historically and in accordance with international law. It is extremely serious that these activities continue. We will respond to the Chinese side firmly and calmly,” Suga said.
In a statement on Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the same thing to the government in Tokyo last week.
“Diaoyu Island and its connected islands are an integral part of China’s territory and it is our inherent right to carry out patrols and law enforcement activities in these waters.”
On its surface, the movement, presented by the Ishigaki City Council, which runs the islands, seems quite harmless.
According to Japanese Asahi Shimbun, the council wants to disconnect the islands from the inhabited parts of Ishigaki Island to streamline administrative practices.
But in a resolution before Isigaki City Council, the city “claims that the islands are part of Japanese territory.”
It is the type of language that is classified in Beijing.
“Changing the administrative definition at the moment can only make the controversy more complicated and more risky than a crisis,” Li Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at China’s University of Foreign Affairs, told the Global Times.
Voting in Isigaki is expected at Monday’s council meeting.
Last week, the most recent “crisis” on the islands occurred in 2012.
That year, Japan nationalized the then privately owned islands to repel a planned sale to then-Tokyo governor, a hardline nationalist who reportedly hoped to develop the islands.
Protests erupted as protesters dumped rubble at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, dug Japanese shops and restaurants and overturned Japanese cars.
In a vivid depiction of how the islands enter Chinese consciousness, a Chinese man was beaten to death by his compatriots simply for driving a Toyota Corolla.
A controversial story
China says its claim to the islands dates back to 1400, when they were used as a stopping point for the Chinese fisherman.
However, Japan says it did not see any trace of Chinese control of the islands in a 1885 survey, so it officially recognized them as Japanese sovereign territory in 1895.
A group of settlers made dried fish and collected wings, with the islands having more than 200 inhabitants at one point, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
Japan then sold the islands in 1932 to descendants of the original settlers, but the factory failed around 1940 and the islands were eventually abandoned. The Japanese surrender at the end of World War II in 1945 only served to further obscure the issue.
The islands were ruled by the American post-war occupation force. But in 1972, Washington returned them to Japan as part of its withdrawal from Okinawa.
The self-governing Taiwan, which Beijing considers a Chinese province, also claims to own the chain.
And objections to the administrative reorganization of the islands in Taiwan show the depth to which the islands connect the respective plaintiffs.
Although the islands are uninhabited, there are financial interests, according to the CFR.
The islands “have potential oil and gas reserves, are located near prominent shipping routes and are surrounded by rich fishing areas,” he said.
What could cause a conflict?
All of this is exacerbating potential problems, says William Choong, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
“If Chinese fishing crews, coastguards or military personnel land on Senkakus, then the Japanese Coast Guard would undoubtedly try to remove them in a law enforcement action. But given that China does not recognize Japan’s allegations, it is certainly possible. it could see this as an escalation, which could lead to a significant military response from China, “the AMTI website said.
And with an ironic nod to what is happening in the East China Sea, Beijing is redefining its claims to the island in the South China Sea, giving the Spratly / Nansha and Paracel / Xcel / Xisha islands a more prominent status in the country’s government hierarchy.
Choong argues that it would not be prudent to believe that Senkakus / Diaoyus have not received such attention at some point.
“The question is not whether China, which is now the target of a full court from the United States, would want to challenge Japan for the islands. The question is when and how? That’s what keeps Japanese (and American) politicians awake. at night, “Chong wrote.
CNN’s Junko Ogura, Kaori Enjoji, Shawn Deng and Katie Hunt contributed to the report.