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East China Sea dispute

Hans Spross / act
January 21, 2013

Reinhard Drifte of Newcastle University talks to DW about the territorial dispute between Japan and China over the East China Sea, which he says is putting more and more strain on bilateral relations.


DW: Could you describe the background to the conflict since Japan's capitulation in the Second World War?

Reinhard Drifte: At the end of 1969, Japan and the US made an agreement about returning Okinawa, which had been occupied for military reasons, and the Senkaku Islands to Japan. The official return took place in 1972. But whereas Okinawa was returned to Japanese sovereignty, only the administrative rights of the Senkaku Islands were returned. The US did not say anything about their sovereignty. I've found out in the course of my research that the government of the Republic of China in Taiwan asked the US not to give back the Senkaku Islands to Japan and also laid claim to them itself.

Dr. Reinhard Drifte
Dr. Reinhard Drifte is an East Asia expert at Newcastle UniversityImage: Reinhard Drifte

The demand was quite loud and could be heard across the Chinese diaspora. The People's Republic of China came under pressure because of its exclusive claim to the whole of China so it would not have been possible for Beijing to not make the same claim. Therefore, in December 1971 - after Taiwan - the People's Republic formally demanded the return of the islands to China. That's how the current conflict over the islands began.

And how did it continue in the 1970s?

In 1972, Japan and the People's Republic of China established diplomatic relations. The territorial dispute about the islands was mentioned in the negotiations by Japan - that's very important. The Chinese said: 'We acknowledge this but don't want to talk about it now. We have other priorities at the moment.' And the Japanese agreed and said: 'OK, we'll talk about it later.' In 1978, the two countries negotiated a peace and friendship treaty and once again the Japanese tabled the subject. But Deng Xiaoping famously said the issue should be put aside for later generations. That's how it was left.

Today's conflict was caused by the fact that gradually the two countries introduced measures that undermined this agreement more and more, especially the question of leaving the matter to rest. When the two countries signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1996 they both registered their claims but did not observe their secret agreement to leave the matter alone. A whole series of measures followed that in their own right were legitimate and normal but they approached the question of the islands' sovereignty unilaterally. So the problem is that the agreement of 1972 and 1978 was not protected enough.

What are the mutual positions of China and Japan and how would you evaluate them from a legal point of view?

The Japanese government does not acknowledge the agreement with China. It says there was never such an agreement and because no document exists, Japan can deny its existence. However, the Chinese insist it exists and to those, like me, who have conducted interviews about this matter and seen documents related to it, it's clear that there was such an agreement. It's also hard to imagine a peace and friendship treaty being signed without the question of sovereignty being discussed. Territorial integrity is one of the fundamental tasks of government and when such a bilateral agreement is signed then such questions cannot simply be ignored.

Japanese coastguard vessel Photo: Ralph Goldmann
The Chinese and Japanese coastguards have boosted their presence in the East China SeaImage: picture alliance/R. Goldmann

Yet, from a modern legal point of view it's very clear that the Japanese have more rights and would most probably get the islands if an international court were to decide - because Japan claimed the islands from 1895 to 1971 without anyone else laying claim to them.

Why did the conflict escalate so much last year, culminating in massive anti-Japan protests in China?

A significant incident took place in 2010 when a Chinese fishing trawler captain twice clashed with the Japanese coastguard and was then arrested by the Japanese. This was an overstepping of the line for China and they said they should protest more strongly and make their claim to the Diaoyu Islands more clearly. This incident was an important precursor to the current conflict.

Japanese protesters shout slogans during a rally (Photo:Itsuo Inouye/AP/dapd)
There were virulent anti-China protests last year in JapanImage: AP

For the Chinese, it's always the same. They say they can't allow the Japanese to gnaw away at their claims of sovereignty. And to arrest a captain in the territorial waters of these disputed islands is of course an act of sovereignty. The Chinese also considered Japan's nationalization of three islands as an extremely provocative act.

Chinasays that Japan is negating the outcome of the Second World War with its actions. And Beijing won't accept this. What do you think of Beijing's arguments?

From a historical and political point of view, Japan really does have some weak points in this conflict. It's of course clearly linked with the countries' very difficult history, Japan's occupation of Taiwan and then mainland China and the interrelated humiliations and crimes. This all began in January 1895 when Japan annexed the islands by governmental decree. Japan's imperial government had waited for many years before taking this step because it knew that China would also lay claim to the islands.

Soon afterwards, China had to relinquish the island of Taiwan to Japan after Japan's victory in the Sino-Japanese war. The Chinese say this was the same and that Japan exploited China's weaknesses, even if there were three months in between. They say that the annexation of the Senkaku Islands is as void as all of the conquests Japan had to return because of its defeat in the Second World War. Japan has a different view.

Could the territorial dispute escalate to a dangerous extent?

I am very worried about the fact that China keeps escalating this conflict, boosting coastguard patrols near the islands and regularly trespassing in the 12-mile zone around the islands. Last December, a coastguard plane flew over the islands. And in Japan an intrusion into airspace can only be counteracted by the air force. So whereas before it was a question of coastguard against coastguard, it's now coastguard against air force. That's a further escalation which is structural and not intentional. There were rumors recently that the Japanese had fired warning shots to the planes. That worries me and it has of course an impact on the South China Sea, in which this conflict is reflected.

To what extent can the conflict in the East China Sea be compared to the one in the South China Sea?

The East China Sea conflict is also about natural resources and fishing rights. The original problem with the Chinese diaspora and Beijing's exclusive claim has now been put on the backburner. Now it's a question of principle. The Chinese want to show Japan and the world that the Japanese do not have exclusive control over these islands, that Chinese coastguard ships and planes can operate there unhindered. And that's also the case in the South China Sea. It's about the principle of sovereignty. Since the 1930s, the Chinese have laid claim to more or less the whole South China Sea.

Because of the international sea convention, China has had to clarify this claim more and more. It hasn't yet done so in terms of international sea rights, but it is getting closer and closer to such a clarification - that it lays claim to the whole South China Sea apart from the territorial waters of the neighboring states. That's pretty steep!

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