The Ishigaki City Council of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture has approved legislation to change the administrative status of the uninhabited island group 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers) southwest of Tokyo.
The islands, known as Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China, have been ruled by Japan since 1972, but both Tokyo and Beijing say their claims to the team date back hundreds of years.
China warned ahead of Monday’s vote on any change in the status quo on the islands.
“Diaoyu Island and its connected islands are inherent in China,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday. “We urge Japan to adhere to the spirit of the four-point agreement, to avoid creating new incidents on the Diaoyu Islands and to take practical steps to maintain the stability of the situation in the East China Sea.”
One of these four principles was that Japan recognizes that sovereignty over the islands was in question.
However, a bill passed Monday in Isigaki raised concerns about how the move in Beijing might be perceived.
“The approval of this case did not take into account the influence of other countries, but it was considered to improve the effectiveness of administrative procedures,” the council said.
Earlier, the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun said the bill “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.
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 daily since mid-April, setting a new record for the number of consecutive days.
By Monday, those remarks had reached 70 days in a row, with Japan’s coast guard saying four Chinese ships were in the area as the vote took place in Okinawa.
In response to the increased presence in China, Yoshihide Suga, chief secretary of Japan’s cabinet, reiterated 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.
Violent protests in China
Ahead of Monday’s vote, 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.
What complicates any disagreement over the islands, if they were to escalate to the point of military confrontation, is that the United States is obliged to defend them as part of Japanese territory under a reciprocal defense agreement with Tokyo.
William Choong, a senior associate at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, recently warned that Senkakus / Diaoyu could be more than dust from other disputed areas in East Asia.
“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.