Senkaku dispute escalates

WORLD War II ended 69 years ago in 1945 with the surrender of Japan to the United States. All these years, Japan controlled Pinnacle Islands which are a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

They are roughly due east of Mainland China, northeast of Taiwan, west of Okinawa Island and north of the southwest end of the Ryukyu Islands. Before these islands came under the rule of Japan, they were indeed parts of China and Taiwan – at least territorially .

After WWII, the control of the islands came under the US. When the US handed over sovereignty of the islands to the Japanese in 1972, China and Taiwan both made territorial claims over the islands.

What made them to claim these islands after a such a long time is a bona fide question. Japan, however, did not acknowledge either China's or Taiwan's claims. But what really inspired China and Taiwan to make sudden claims over the small uninhibited and rocky islands is understandable.

In 1969, Economic Commission for Asia and Far East of the UN Economic Social Council reported that the continental shelf of the East China "might contain one of the most prolific oil and gas reservoirs of the world, possibly comparing favourably with the Persian Gulf."

Therefore both China and Japan expected that there might be large hydrocarbon deposits off Senkaku Island. It was therefore most natural that the ownership of the Diaoyu (Chinese name) or Senkaku (Japanese name) would provide access to a large area of the continental shelf that may have rich sources of oil and gas.

That justifies the awakening interest of the world's two mighty nations to develop the offshore energy resource to meet the demand of their economies.
The dispute between China and Japan over the ownership of the Senkaku Island surfaced with the publication of a seismic survey report by UNECFE in 1968 as stated earlier.

A similar Japanese report published in 1969 also confirmed the possibility of huge oil and gas reserves in the area. Almost immediately both China and Taiwan started to make their claim.

On the other hand, the US which took over control of the islands from Japan after WWII and maintained it till 1972, provided their support to Japanese. It indicated that the existence of oil resources was the main reason that China and Taiwan on historical grounds made their claims.

A further report in 1971, compiled by the CIA, also confirmed that the Japanese claim to sovereignty over the Senkaku was strong and the burden of proof of ownership would seem to fall on the Chinese.

The CIA stated that any dispute between Japan, China and Taiwan over the islands, would not have arisen, had it not been for the discovery of potential oil reserves on the nearby continental shelf. In 1971, President Nixon confirmed Japan's residual sovereignty over the islands on the advice of his security adviser Henry Kissinger. The history that follows over the period subcutaneously endorses the Japanese claim.

Nevertheless, who will ultimately win the conflict is hard to predict. But we should consider the "offshoots", that developed, over the relatively small disputes. On July 30, 2013 US Senate unanimously approved a resolution condemning China's action over the Senkaku Islands.

Since Taiwan and China publicly started claiming ownership of the islands, there have been no major incidents between the three countries. But much later, since 2004, several events including naval encounters, "scrambled fighter jets" along with diplomatic efforts and public protests have heightened the dispute.

A number of incidents occurred due to the presence of Chinese or Taiwan fishing vessels in zones claimed by Japan. In some cases, these incidents have resulted in collisions. In 2008, a Japanese patrol vessel and Taiwanese fishing boat collided.

Several maritime incursions and more than 100 aerial incursions occurred. To be precise, the situation deteriorated, tensions intensified, and relationships degenerated between the conflicting countries.

In October 2013, the Chinese Ministry of Defence, in response to reports that Japan might shoot down Chinese drones entering what Japan considered its "territory", stated that China would consider such an action an "act of war".

China media warned that "a war looms following Japan radical provocation". But the Chinese media also expressed confidence that China's comprehensive military power was stronger than Japan. Needless to say similar warnings or threats were being uttered by the Japanese as well.

With both sides arguing and justifying their own actions on "self-defence" grounds, the barometer clearly indicates the red point towards danger. This is more so, when Japan which practised "self-defence" and stripped off its military strengths to a minimum since 1945, has awakened and decided to re-equip its army.

Last year, Japan increased its defence spending tremendously after decades of cuts. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe elected has called for Japan to broaden the scope of military activities. This is against the post-war constitution of Japan which limits military activities. Abe also established the National Security Council which would oversee key issues.

Abe believes that national security strategy will make Japan's foreign and security policy clear and transparent. However, Japan's efforts to boost its military forces is presumably to counter China. Shinzo Abe has declared that he would not be pushed around by Beijing.

Over the next five years, Japan will buy hardware including drones, stealth aircraft and amphibious vehicles. The military will also build a new marine unit and an amphibious force. In short, if Japan keeps transforming its army, navy or air force at such an alarming rate, soon the move will be seen as "dangerous".

Moreover, when the Japanese constitution does not allow an active air, navy or army, Japan is spending huge sums of money on defence. Although many think Abe's policy on re-arming Japan's military is sensible and responsible on the basis of current and future threats.

But there are people in and outside Japan, who suspect that Abe might have another agenda behind the conflict over those tiny islands. History repeats itself. A mole should be erased before it becomes a mountain.

Khairul Bashar is a former journalist and has served in the UN. He now lectures on Communication, Journalism and Political Science at a university. Comments: