Alan D. Romberg Comments on the Diaoyutai/ Senkaku Islands Dispute

October 02, 2012

By Alan D. Romberg - Tensions have flared on both sides of the East China Sea, since the Japanese central government announced its purchase of the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands in early September.  Stimson's Distinguished Fellow, Alan D. Romberg, weighed in on the contentious issue and provided the following commentary:

"While the anti-Japanese demonstrations in China have subsided over the past two weeks, and both governments want to avoid escalation, Sino-Japanese relations remain tense and show no sign of improving. Moreover, as the Coast Guard-escorted flotilla of Taiwan fishing boats that came within about 3 miles of the islands shows, this involves Taipei as well. (Beijing seeks to project a common "Chinese" position on this issue, but Ma Ying-jeou has rejected such collaboration; indeed, one of Ma's purposes is to obtain a separate and equal seat at the table as these issues-and those in the South China Sea-are addressed.) All concerned say history is on their side and that sovereignty is "indisputably" theirs; Tokyo's denial that there is a territorial dispute has especially angered the PRC and Taiwan.

Prime Minister Noda insists his action was not intended to change the "status quo" but that he had no better alternative than to buy the islands in order to preclude purchase by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, well-known for his anti-China sentiments, who would likely have taken even more provocative steps such as construction of a pier and lighthouse on the islands.  However, Beijing rejects this claim, even arguing there was a political conspiracy between Noda and Ishihara. 

Although the situation remains volatile, all sides can take steps to help restore a reasonable equilibrium.  Tokyo could reiterate public assurances that it is not going to build any structures or allow any landings on the islands, and that it will strictly enforce these rules. Crucially, Japan could also say that, while its claim is absolute, it recognizes that others disagree with this position. 

Beijing and Taipei could then dismiss Noda's purchase as irrelevant political theater. To avoid potential clashes, Beijing would need to reverse its recent decision to "regularly patrol" waters around the islands.

While the underlying sovereignty issue will not be resolved anytime soon, Tokyo and Taipei need to work towards finalizing a fishery agreement like the one Japan has with Beijing allowing Mainland fishermen to operate in the Japanese EEZ.  Tokyo has agreed to renew fishery negotiations with Taipei (suspended since 2009), but this is not expected to occur for a while.  Although Ma Ying-jeou has called for Japan to acknowledge that a dispute exists, expediting conclusion of a fisheries agreement would help management of the controversy in Taiwan."

Photo Credit: National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs), Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism of Japan,

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