The Japanese government recently announced plans to populate a cluster of minute, rocky islands located almost equidistant between Okinawa and Taiwan -- a move that has reignited a decades-long dispute with China over sovereignty of the tiny territories.
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According to Japanese officials, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans next month to legally designate the Senkaku Islands – known in China as the Diaoyu Islands – as inhabited border territories. Amid the goals of the plan, which stems from a law passed last year, is a call for the construction of civic facilities, the purchasing of land, the improvement of ports and stopping foreign vessels from illegally visiting the islands.
Along with the Senkaku Islands, Japan will also designate another 143 remote islands – with 71 receiving special attention for their isolation and population decline – as part of a plan to secure the country’s sprawling archipelago of around 6,800 islands from the dual threat of territory-hungry neighbors and a long-term decrease in population.
“Prime Minister Abe is very conservative and a nationalist,” Zhiqun Zhu, a political science professor and director of the China Institute at Bucknell University, told Fox News. “So this move is not very surprising, but it’s going to be counterproductive in terms of relations with China.”
The Senkaku Islands – a chain of five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks in the East China Sea – were uninhabited until 1895 when Japan laid claim to them. In the ensuing decades, the Japanese populated the chain and even set up a fish-processing plant on one of the islands.
“The Government of Japan made a Cabinet Decision on January 14, 1895, to erect markers on the islands to formally incorporate the Senkaku Islands into the territory of Japan,” Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated. “These measures were carried out in accordance with the internationally accepted means of duly acquiring territorial sovereignty under international law.”
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The United States took control of the islands during the occupation of Japan following World War II, and handed them back in 1972. It was around this time that China – citing ancient texts and maps – claimed that Japan seized the islands in violation of international law.
The Chinese went further by claiming that Japan took possession of the islands as part of the treaty that ended the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, which also handed over Taiwan to Japan. China argues that when Japan handed back Taiwan following the end of World War II, the islands should have gone back too as in China’s view the islands are part of Taiwan.
Furthering mudding the situation is the fact that at the time of the Taiwan handover, the U.S. technically controlled the islands (although it did not claim sovereignty) before handing them back in the early 1970s.
Despite international law that governs over these territorial disputes favoring Japan, things are not so clear cut when the shifting power dynamics of the region are taken into account.
These two powers are still trying to figure out their roles in the region. There is a saying in Chinese that two tigers cannot share the same mountain.
Experts say the dispute over the islands is more about two regional players asserting their respective power than about the actual land at stake. When Japan first seized control of the islands in 1895, it was on the verge of becoming a great power while China was beset by internal turmoil. More than 120 years later, the tables have turned and China now has the upper hand in the region.
“This is a very emotional issue for both sides,” Frances Rosenbluth, a political science professor at Yale University, told Fox News. “Japan right now is trying to send strong signals to ward off any other advances by Chinese in regards to their territory.”
In early February, three Chinese warships sailed into the water near the Senkaku Islands -- only two days before Japan’s Abe was set to meet with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis.
It was the latest move by Beijing that has provoked the ire of Tokyo and heightened tensions throughout East Asia.
Last November, China flew a pair of nuclear-capable bombers around Taiwan for the first time, as the Japanese scrambled eight F-15 fighter jets to intercept the Chinese flight while it was circling the island.
China in December also placed hundreds of surface-to-air missiles on Hainan Island off mainland China, which intelligence officials say could one day be moved to China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea to better defend them.
“These two powers are still trying to figure out their roles in the region,” Zhu said. “There is a saying in Chinese that two tigers cannot share the same mountain.”
While experts agree that neither Japan nor China want an armed conflict over the disputed territory – something that some have speculated would start World War III – it may be up to the U.S. to help resolve this issue.
During his trip to Japan last month, Mattis reaffirmed -- under Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty -- the U.S.’s commitment to defend Japan and its territories if attacked.
“I made clear that our long-standing policy on the Senkaku Islands stands. The U.S. will continue to recognize Japanese administration of the islands,” Mattis said. “As such, Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty applies.”
Mattis’ words not only mirror longstanding U.S. policy toward its closest ally in Asia, but also the administration of Donald Trump’s tough talk toward China. During his time on the stump, Trump railed against Chinese economic and political polices, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing in January that China’s buildup in the South China Sea was "akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” from Ukraine.
"We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” Tillerson said.
China’s Foreign Minister Lu Kang said after Mattis’ trip that the U.S. needs to take a “responsible attitude” to “avoid making the issue more complicated and bringing instability to the regional situation.”
Besides the U.S., Russia has involved itself in the dispute between Japan and Russia over the islands. While relations between Tokyo and Moscow chilled following the formers invasion on the Crimea in 2014, Abe has maintained a strong relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and has promised economic cooperation in a bid to move forward the territorial dispute over the Senkaku islands.
How the two countries settle a long-running dispute over the ownership of the Southern Kurils – called the Northern Territories in Japan and seized by the Soviet Union in 1945 at the end of World War II -- could foreshadow future negotiations over the Senkaku Islands. Putin visited with Abe in December 2016 to discuss the situation.
And while China’s expansionist polices have come under widespread scrutiny on the world stage, observers say it’s also up to the U.S. to keep Japan from making any more moves that could lead to a clash in East Asia.
“Japan is not a major actor in the future of East Asian political economy, but Abe and many in Japan don’t see it that way,” Zhu said. “I don’t know why Japan is doing these things on these islands, but if they continue China will respond and this will escalate into a conflict.”
Zhu added: “It’s the U.S. that has the ability to rein in Japan’s aggressive moves.”