12 June, 2013

Disputed Territory: The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

You may have heard the news about China and Japan's ongoing territorial dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea. But what are the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and why are they so fiercely contested? Read on for all these answers and more!

Map of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, disputed between Japan, China, and Taiwan; includes location as well as detail of islands
Map of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (by Evan Centanni).
Article by Omar Alkhalili

About the Islands
The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are a collection of five small islets and three rocks in the East China Sea, all of which are uninhabited. The largest of the islands has an area of 4.32 km² and the smallest is only 0.45 km². They are located about 140 km from the nearest inhabited Japanese islands, 300 km from mainland China and 170 km from Taiwan. They are administered by Japan but claimed by both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan, whose government is known officially as the Republic of China (ROC).

Map of the location of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands within Asia
Location of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in Asia
Public domain graphic (source)
In English, the islets have historically been referred to as the Pinnacle Islands, but are now more often called by their Japanese and Chinese names. In Japan, they are known as the Senkaku Islands, whereas in mainland China they are called the Diaoyu Islands and in Taiwan they are referred to as the Diaoyutai (Tiaoyutai) Islands. They are administered by Japan as part of Ishigaki, a municipality in Okinawa Prefecture, while the PRC and ROC both consider them part of Toucheng township in Taiwan’s Yilan County, despite the fact that the two rival governments do not recognize each other.

While it considers the islands part of Ishigaki, Japan's central government does not allow the city to develop or survey them. Four of the islands have been privately owned since 1932, but the government bought three of them last year after renting them for some time. One of the privately owned islands is still leased to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, which has allowed the United States military to use it as a practice bombing range for aircraft.

History of Claims and Control
Territory Name:  
Senkaku-shotō (Japanese)
• Diàoyúdǎo (Mandarin - China)
• Diàoyútái (Mandarin - Taiwan)
Pinnacle Islands (English - historical) 
• Japan
• China (People's Republic of China)
• Taiwan (Republic of China)
Actual Control: Japan
Administrative Status: Part of the country
Capital: N/A (uninhabited)
Japan, mainland China and Taiwan all root their claims to the Senkakus/Diaoyus in the region’s history. China was aware of the islands' existence since the 15th century, and the PRC and ROC claim that the islands have been part of Chinese territory since at least the 16th century. However, the Japanese government holds that when it surveyed the islands in the late 1800s, they were uninhabited and showed no signs of having been under Chinese administration.

Japan took control of the islands in 1895, and with the exception of the American occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1972, has held onto them ever since. Both Chinas now consider the islands to be part of Taiwan province, which China ceded to Japan in 1895 after the First Sino-Japanese War. However, they hold that Japan returned the rights to the islands to China by surrendering to the Allied Powers at the end of World War II. Japan insists that these islands were not part of the territory that it gave up in surrendering, arguing that they were always considered part of the Ryukyu island chain rather than Taiwan. China and Taiwan did not voice their claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands until after the U.S. occupation Okinawa ended in 1972.

On top of the historical claims, various economic issues complicate the dispute. The islands’ territorial waters include rich fishing grounds and lie along the path of strategically important shipping lanes. Potential oil reserves have also been identified nearby.

Current Dispute
In recent years, tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands have flared between Japan and both Chinese governments. After a series of incidents in 1996 that included Japanese activists installing a light house on one of the islands and the death of a Chinese activist due to drowning, there have been continued instances of Chinese activists attempting to sail to the islands, resulting in their arrest and detention.

Aerial view of two of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands disputed between Japan, China, and Taiwan
Aerial photo of Kita-kojima/Bei Xiaodao and Minami-kojima/Nan Xiaodao in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands
(Courtesy of Japan National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism; source)
In 2010, an incident involving the detention of a Chinese ship crew precipitated mass protests in Chinese cities. Two years later, before the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the islands, the then Governor of Tokyo came up with his own plan to buy the islands, sparking protests in China and resulting in the detention of a group of activists from Hong Kong. Mainland China has challenged Japanese control of the islands through incursions into their territorial waters and airspace. In 2013, the mainland government announced that it plans to survey the islands in order to safeguard its maritime interests.

Recently, some progress has been made in resolving the dispute, with Japan and Taiwan arriving at an agreement allowing Taiwanese fishermen access to a large portion of the island’s surrounding waters. This agreement may create an obstacle for mainland China as its government becomes isolated in its efforts to challenge Japanese control. However, Taiwan still retains its claims to the Senkakus/Diaoyus, and there is no clear end in sight for the dispute between the three governments.

Omar Alkhalili is a contributor to Political Geography Now. He is a graduate of Ramapo College of New Jersey with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science. He can be reached at omaralkha@gmail.com.

See Also: The Eight Islands of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Group (profiles and aerial photos)

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  1. this guy is nuts.....who cares!

    1. I would say that a dispute such as this which has drawn considerable media attention is significant. Plus, this is a website for those who do care about this stuff... ;P

      Lets also remember that the United States is obligated by a treaty signed after World War II to come to Japan's defense if its sovreignty is violated. If China were to make any serious move on the islands, it could in some ways be interpreted as a declaration of war by China on the US, which by most opinions would be pretty consequential. Neither Chinese governments seems interested in dropping the issue of the Senkaku/Diaoyo Islands, and while military confrontation between China and the US is extremely hypothetical, the backdrop of the American obligation to the defense of Japan's sovreign territory adds to the significance of this dispute.

    2. As a Chinese, I have to say compared to the China-india border dispute, the dispute for Diaoyu/senkaku island is not difficult to understand at all. Japan empire did not claim those island as an "unoccupied island" until Japan Empire Navy decisively defeated Qing Empire Navy in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894 (can you imagine there are any unoccupied islands close to a country with 3500 years of history and with a #1 navy in far-Aisa by then?). It's obvious by then that Japanese government did know who "ruled" these islands. As a result of the lost war, Qing government conceeded the whole Taiwan island and sorrounding islands. After WWII, Chinese Kuomintang government claimed all lost lands after first Sino-Japanese war back. If China was still under rule of Kuomintang Government and was allied with U.S. during cold war era, the diaoyu islands would be back to China for a long time already. But you know what happened later.
      If you speak Japanese and Chinese, you would notice that the main island name in Japanese is Uotsuri-shima, That word literally means fishing island, which is exact the same meaning of Chinese name Diaoyu island. The name has been on Chinese map for about 500 years.
      In the history of political geography, there is nothing about justice or fairness. It's all about power and interest. I hope you will enjoy that.

  2. Replies
    1. The NAVTEQ one is really goofy-looking....

  3. Excellent article, very well written and informative.

  4. Perhaps we should go back to calling them the Pinnacle Islands in English, since the alternative requires us to pick a side in the dispute.

    1. Agreed! Especially when there is a rather neutral name for it.

  5. The Senkaku Islands dispute between China and Japan are getting more hotter and hotter, each with their own rhetoric, because many historical and practical reasons, that is hard to determine the right of attribution, but yesterday I saw a news that a museum of United States retains a carnet of Qing Dynasty, which shows the Qing Government allowed the Austrian Victor family voyages to the Senkaku Islands. If that is true, that will be much helpful to determine the right of attribution of the Senkaku Islands.

    1. Which museum is that? Could you provide the name?

  6. I took my own Diaoyutai pic, http://jidanni.org/geo/diaoyutai/ .

  7. Nice! After the work I put into this map, I think I might recognize the islands if I saw them from an airplane too!

    (Clickable link here)

  8. Evan -

    great work, please continue!

    Love your site!!

    (never knew about these islands! good stuff)

    Adrian Sanderson

    1. Glad you like the site! The writer for this piece, Omar Alkhalili, will be back for more articles in the future too!

  9. Japan was given territory under dispute by the Nixon administration who contrary to common sense ignored the protests of China and Taiwan. I can't think of a more arrogant action which compensates a former aggressor in WWII at the expense of the victim! Don't do to others what you do not wish upon yourself--Confucius.

  10. Hi guys, I am Rex from Hong Kong. I am glad there is a neutral article in English medium/platform under the media ruling by the west. I prefer to see this issue neither from the view of Chinese or Japanese.

    Just one supplement note, as I read the commentary from China, the reason why ChinaS only jumped out in 70's and claim the islands because Japanese never made it public until 70's. When Japan 'claimed' the Pinnacle Islands in 1895, they did not tell any others outside their parliament, so ChinaS had no way to know and appeal that the territories were taken by Japan(consider that inter-countries communication was not comprehensive at that time) and only awaken in 70's when Japan claimed the islands in public and international level.

    I am trying to be neutral as I don't want to be a radical pro-china or anti-china, I hope both sides can reach an agreement on the issue no matter what it is about. Just give the people the peace, no one really want to be in tension in 21st century.

    And please, USA as a super power in the world, tell me what you think, if you think the islands belong to Japan, then be a man and say it.

    1. Hi there, Rex! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Your point about why China only claimed the islands in the 1970s is well taken. We'll look into that if writing about this topic again in the future.

      As for the U.S., President Obama recently said "The policy of the United States is clear - the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security". That's a stronger stance than the U.S. has taken in the past.

  11. This article substantively misrepresents events. There was no Chinese "historical" claim to the Senkakus -- that was invented in the early 1970s and retrojected into history. A factual discussion of this would note that prior to 1970 there was no controversy. All Chinese maps and documents issued by both the PRC and ROC governments showed the Senkakus as Japanese, used their Japanese names for them, and never mentioned any controversy. That is why the PRC had to recall hundreds of thousands of maps in the 1970s, while the ROC altered all its maps. See The Diaoyutai Islands on Taiwan’s Official Maps: Pre- and Post-1971 (Asian Affairs: An American Review, 39:90–105, 2012) for the story of the ROC map alterations.

    A key to understanding this "dispute" is not that there is some equal disagreement, but rather that the Japanese side is correct and that this represents one of the many expansionist moves by the Chinese since the late 1930s against the territories of their neighbors.

    ""'That's a stronger stance than the U.S. has taken in the past.""

    Evan, that's been the US stance for quite a while. The US performed exercises in the Senkakus aimed at China more than a decade ago, and Obama was merely reiterating longstanding policy.

    Michael Turton
    The View from Taiwan

    1. Hi Michael,

      Thank you very much for your insightful comment. Questionable and exaggerated claims from one or all sides are par for the course in territorial disputes all around the world. In this case, the fact is that Japan, the PRC, and the ROC all are currently claiming the islands, and there is an ongoing debate as to the legitimacy of Chinese claims starting in the 1970s, as you can see in the comments for this article.

      Could you help point out which specific part of the article "substantively misrepresents events"? I just re-read it, and as far as I can tell it is factually consistent with your telling of the story, complete with acknowledgment that Chinese claims appeared only in the 1970s.

  12. I think to clarify the article it might be helpful to add that the "historical" claims to the islands by China were not made until after 1970. The idea that they were part of Taiwan is also a new one, post-1970, since historically they were never administered from Taiwan but were always considered part of the Ryukyus. There are numerous examples of documents from both Chinese governments between 1895 to 1970, including news articles, official communications, school textbooks, and official maps, that show that Taipei and Beijing always considered the Senkakus to be Japanese and never felt there was a controversy. The invention of the "Chinese since the 16th century!" myth began after Japanese scientists announced the possibility of oil there in the late 1960s.

    Ampontan has a few examples of old maps and documents here.

    There's a huge list on an old site, the Wayback Machine preserves it at this link:

    What's going on here is not a dispute caused by Japanese territorial expansion in the 19th century. It's a dispute caused by Chinese territorial expansion in the 20th. It did not exist until 1970.

    Michael Turton
    The View from Taiwan

  13. "" read the commentary from China, the reason why ChinaS only jumped out in 70's and claim the islands because Japanese never made it public until 70's.""

    This is incorrect, and on all maps after 1900 the Senkakus are mapped as Japanese, including those maps made in China. No one kept it a secret.