Senkaku/Diaoyu islands: US & Japan’s major worry

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US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga discussed the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in a phone call. Here’s why, according to the ABC’s Liam Butterworth.

While the five islets and three rocks covering just 7 square kilometres may seem insignificant, they have been quite a hot topic between US and Japanese officials.

In fact, Mr Biden and Mr Suga’s early morning call on Thursday (Feb 2021) was the third time in a week that the islands have come up in the first conversations between high-level ministers, with defence and foreign affairs officials in each country all weighing in on the topic.

Here’s why they keep coming up.

What’s the background?

At the heart of the matter is a territorial dispute.

While Japan may control the islands and calls them Senkaku, China calls them Diaoyu and also makes a claim.

Taiwan also claims jurisdiction over the islands.

The islands are at the southern end of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture and are 410 kilometres from its capital Naha, but are 170 kilometres from Taiwan and 300km from China.

The Japanese Government says it holds an historical and legal claim to the Senkaku Islands. It says an 1885 survey found they had never been inhabited nor under Chinese control, and were thus identified as terra nullius and legally claimed by Japan in 1895.

The Chinese Government disputes this and claims it first discovered and named the Diaoyu Islands. It says its sovereignty claims go back 500 years and has historical maps, books and records to back them up.

Japan claims China and Taiwan have only shown interest in the islands since the 1970s, after a survey found a possible oil reserve.

Why are they coming up now?

Amid the conflicting claims of ownership, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have been a flashpoint between the countries for years.

Their ships often come into close contact in the area and there have been multiple collisions and deliberate rammings in the past, leading to protests in each country and diplomatic protests.

Japan says it frequently observes Chinese government ships around the islands to test its response, including incursions into its territorial waters, and says China is challenging the status quo through coercion.

China says it has a right to patrol the waters around the islands and urges Japan to stop infringing on its sovereignty.

But one big reason the islands are currently on the radar for Japanese and US officials is China’s passing of a law last week which allows its coastguard to open fire on foreign vessels.

The draft wording of the bill allows the coastguard to use “all necessary means” to stop or prevent threats from foreign vessels, demolish other countries’ structures built on Chinese-claimed reefs and to board and inspect foreign vessels in waters claimed by China.

What’s it got to do with the US?

Due to their security treaty, the United States is obligated to become involved in the case of any armed attacks in Japanese territory.

Thus Mr Biden’s explicit recognition of the Senkaku Islands as Japanese territory affirms a US commitment to defend them.

Mr Biden promised an “unwavering commitment to the defence of Japan” as part of the 1960 Japan-US security treaty.

The White House statement also said Mr Biden affirmed his “commitment to provide extended deterrence to Japan”.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin made similar commitments in conversations with their counterparts.

What does China say?

The Chinese Government is yet to officially respond to the statements by Mr Biden and Mr Suga.

But in a press conference after the passing of the coastguard law last week, Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying asserted China’s rights to the Diaoyu Islands.

“As for the East China Sea that you’re particularly interested in, I would like to emphasise that the Diaoyu Islands and their affiliated islands are China’s inherent territory,” she said. 

“China safeguards its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests. 

“We believe that China and Japan should manage their differences through dialogue and maintain peace and stability in the relevant maritime areas in accordance with the spirit and principle of the four political documents between China and Japan.”

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