Why the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Are Like a Toothpaste Tube


Editor’s Note: This article is based on a longer scholarly article, “More Significance than Value: Explaining Developments in the Sino-Japanese Contest Over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands,” in Vol 2, Iss 4 of the Texas National Security Review

Consisting of five core islands and several minor features in the East China Sea, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (Japan calls them Senkakushotō, while the China uses the name Diaoyudao) are not much in terms of size — the biggest is only a bit larger than New York City’s Central Park. But they loom large as a potential cause of armed conflict — if not war — between the region’s major powers. In a recent paper, I asked the question: What has made the islands such a dangerous flashpoint?

One common explanation is that important strategic and economic stakes hang in the balance. The islands are said to offer a key strategic foothold in the East China Sea as well as title to rich fishing grounds and plentiful oil and gas resources. My findings are that this story is questionable at best. Bluntly, neither their potential strategic nor economic value appears to justify the risk of conflict.

Instead, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are in many ways analogous to the proverbial toothpaste tube at the center of a massive marital row. (Spoiler alert: The issue is not the toothpaste tube.) The islands are relatively insignificant in and of themselves. The core problem is all the other issues the protagonists have projected onto them. For both Japan and China, the islands have become a concrete focal point for a whole range of larger, more diffuse, concerns, resentments, frustrations, and anxieties. The symbolic stakes of the dispute now far outweigh the tangible ones.

A Disputed Dispute

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan. Japan maintains there is no dispute. China and Taiwan disagree. Japan has administered the islands since 1972, when the United States — having taken jurisdiction over them at the end of World War II — transferred them to Japanese control. That being said, the United States takes no stance on the islands’ sovereignty. All the same, Washington has committed itself to come to Japan’s defense should it be attacked in the exercise of its administrative control. The main concern is thus a scenario in which — either intentionally or unintentionally — Japan and China come to blows and the United States is drawn into the fray.

The fact that sovereignty over a given piece of territory is contested, however, is not immediately a reason to expect armed conflict between the claimants. The United States and Canada have an ongoing maritime territorial dispute. It has even generated a casualty — a lost thumb, to be exact. Yet it is hard to find anyone in Washington or Ottawa advocating a revival of military preparations. For a long time, the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands was also a relatively peripheral concern in Sino-Japanese relations. Although it was the pet issue of a handful of nationalist activists, the situation appeared quite stable.

The current predicament is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back to 2010.  It all began when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with Japanese Coast Guard ships in the waters surrounding the islands. The Japanese side detained the ship and crew, and arrested the captain. This spiraled into a major diplomatic incident, as Beijing applied increasing pressure on Japan for their return. At first, the Japanese side released only the ship and crew. As the situation escalated, however, it also let the captain go. Tensions then subsided, somewhat.

But in 2012, the dispute reignited when — despite Beijing’s objections — the Japanese government purchased several of the islands from a private owner in an effort to preempt an initiative by a nationalist Tokyo mayor to buy the islands himself. This unleashed a new round of conflict involving large popular protests and a breakdown in official relations. On a side note, in China, it also spawned numerous patriotic video games.

Seven years later, things have calmed down slightly. The situation in the waters around the islands, however, remains far more charged than it was before everything started in 2010. Official Chinese maritime vessels have been conducting regular incursions into the islands’ territorial waters, and official aircraft have repeatedly appeared overhead. In 2013, Beijing announced an Air Defense Identification Zone including the airspace over the islands, raising the risk of aerial confrontation. It also took two years before the leaders of both countries would even agree to meet again. And this only after both sides had hammered out statements seemingly agreeing to disagree about the existence of a disagreement.

There has been some progress since Chinese leader Xi Jinping met with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in 2014. Apart from a general improvement in the tone of relations, both sides have established a maritime communication mechanism between the Japanese Self Defense Forces and the People’s Liberation Army.  Even still, the space around the islands has become more crowded and the possibility for serious conflict remains.

The Conventional Wisdom

Sure, one could argue that sooner or later tensions were bound to emerge simply because the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are so valuable.  A pervasive line is that the disputed islands “are close to important shipping lanes, offer rich fishing grounds and lie near potential oil and gas reserves. They are also in a strategically significant position.” This refrain is particularly echoed by hawks in China, Japan, and even the United States.

Looking into this conventional wisdom, however, I have found it to be dubious at best. Strategically speaking, the islands are small and isolated. Viewed from the Chinese mainland, the first island chain is what really matters, and it is located a good distance beyond the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Yes, one could conceivably use the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as a platform on which to put radar or missiles. But the islands offer scant cover. Such assets would be highly exposed and easily targeted.

Granted, China does appear to have an appetite for small, vulnerable installations in the South China Sea. But to date, China has only militarized those features in the South China Sea already under its control. The regional disputants it faces in the South China Sea are also much less formidable than Japan. Trying to militarize the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands means taking them first, thereby hazarding armed conflict not only with Japan but also the United States. Such a move would entail substantial risk for marginal advantage.  Besides, China has easier ways to place fixed assets in the East China Sea.

In terms of their economic value, the islands are uninhabited (except for a few goats), the fishing stocks are in decline, and potential petroleum and natural gas reserves remain unconfirmed and are now estimated to be much, much smaller than originally thought. Underwater topography also means that Japan would have a hard — if not impossible — time exploiting any natural gas resources on its own. Moreover, it remains uncertain what — if any — advantage sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands would provide in negotiations or judicial proceedings to divide up who gets what in the East China Sea, should these ever even occur.

Viewed either strategically or economically, the islands may not be totally worthless. Few things ever are. But their potential strategic or economic value hardly appears to merit the dangers of armed conflict or war.

The Issue Has Issues

So what is going on? The problem is that the islands have become a focal point for a whole range of other concerns between China and Japan.

Certainly, Beijing and Tokyo had quarrels previously. Particularly prominent were those surrounding how to address the legacies of Japanese imperial aggression against China. Beijing at various times accused Tokyo of whitewashing its past and creeping toward militarism. A widespread view in Japan has been that Beijing was distorting facts with its nationalist education and cynically playing the “history card” for political points. Nevertheless, these controversies played out primarily in the realm of rhetoric and, occasionally, protests — not military planning. The flare-ups over the islands, however, have supplied these struggles a more concrete target.

From the perspective of many in Beijing, Tokyo’s insistence that its sovereignty over the islands is indisputable is just one more example of Japanese historical revisionism. While Tokyo argues the islands were unclaimed when it secretly annexed them in 1895, Beijing counters that this was a sneaky move at a time when China was helpless and facing defeat in its war against Japan.  Insult was added to injury when the islands were not returned after World War II, even though Japan had agreed to give back territories it had stolen as part of the terms of its surrender. As one Chinese scholar expressed to me, the islands are worthless, but one cannot say so because the issue is too emotional. He continued, “The islands are emotionally important. They are just a few rocks, but we cannot back down. Japan took the islands when China was weak.”

Figures 1-2: From author’s personal collection. 

But for Beijing it is about more than just historical grievances.  It is also about status and respect.  A widespread Chinese axiom (albeit one possibly originating from Stalin) is that “those who are backwards will be bullied.” The inverse expectation is that now that China is strong, it should now receive greater deference to its wishes. The Japanese arrest of the Chinese fishing captain in 2010, however, was a clear affront to such expectations. Beijing saw it as an underhanded deviation from previous understandings about keeping a lid on the issue and a flagrant attempt to assert Japanese jurisdiction. And in 2012, the Japanese government blatantly flouted Beijing’s wishes again by purchasing the islands despite Beijing’s demands that it desist. In other words, no respect.

Tokyo, however, has its issues with Beijing as well. Beijing had been silent about the islands for decades. It only first officially claimed them in 1971. To Tokyo, the timing of Beijing’s claim appears to follow too close on the heels of the first predictions of petroleum reserves in the area to be a coincidence. Beijing’s accusations that the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is a further legacy of Japanese imperial aggression thus come across as yet another cynical twisting of history. Beijing is seen as acting in bad faith.

The clashes over the islands also occurred against a larger backdrop of concerns not just about China’s growing strength but also Japan’s place in the world. Multiple sources I interviewed noted the significance of the year 2010 for Japan. In 2010, Beijing shocked Tokyo with its strident language and strong-armed tactics — arresting Japanese citizens and allegedly leveling a rare-earth embargo — in seeking the fishing captain’s release. In 2010, China’s GDP also surpassed that of Japan’s, displacing Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. The violent protests that subsequently erupted across China in 2012 over the island dispute did not help assuage Japanese concerns either. All the above acted to crystallize fears of how a stronger China might behave in the future — bullying and ignoring the rules, using its military and economic might to assert its prerogatives in the region and beyond, and pushing Japan into its shadow.

In the words of a former high-ranking Japanese defense official I interviewed, the dispute over the islands “is not a struggle over economic interests … it is not something that would affect the military balance, and so what is left is honor — it is a nationalistic symbol.” Similarly, a former Japanese vice admiral I spoke with stated that the islands “are a kind of psychological symbol … politically and psychologically we cannot allow China to take them.” A former Japanese ambassador to China framed the stakes to me even more poignantly: “[If] we consider giving them up, what will they do next? Does Japan really want to be a part of China, dominated by Chinese influence?’”

In short, the dispute over the islands has become about much more than the islands themselves — they are proxies in larger morally and emotionally charged struggles, over history, reputation, recognition, victimization, and status. The islands have acted as the toothpaste tube in Sino-Japanese relations, and are a dangerous one at that. Had these issues remained abstract, they might have just continued as the subject of occasional heated diplomatic exchanges or even popular activism. But the dispute over the islands supplied these issues a tangible vessel, something that could be militarily contested.

And for this reason Washington is also involved. Japan has repeatedly sought guarantees that the United States will indeed honor its defense commitments. The islands have thus further become a symbol of the U.S. commitment to Japan, and by extension, the American commitment to its allies against aggression more broadly.

Out of the Tube

The tragic irony is that ties between Tokyo and Beijing were looking up prior to the 2010 collision incident. Yes, there were latent resentments, frustrations, and anxieties present in the relationship. Things were far from perfect. But the history issue had retreated into the background, Tokyo and Beijing had inked a deal to jointly develop contested gas fields in the East China Sea, and both sides could look forward to commemorating the upcoming forty-year anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations in 2012. A different path was possible.

But the collision incident in 2010 threw the dispute into the spotlight, stirring up all the concerns and issues mentioned above. The increased salience of the dispute, in turn, provided opportunities for various domestic political actors. The most prominent was the mayor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro. His bid to buy the islands in 2012 arguably would not have occurred had the 2010 collision not left the ruling party in Japan looking weak on the issue. Conveniently, this provocative move put him in the spotlight shortly before he announced he was forming his own new political party. Abe Shinzo also latched onto the dispute during his successful campaigns first to become his party’s leader and then the prime minister of Japan. In China, handling the dispute reportedly became an early test of Xi Jinping’s leadership skills. It was a chance for him to prove his mettle, and he did.

All this means the islands are no longer just a peripheral issue. Domestically, for both sides, they are a political football that leaders mishandle at their peril. Internationally, they are the focus of an ongoing positional competition. It is not just military in nature. It also has unfolded in the domain of public diplomacy, with both Japan and China each famously likening the other to “Voldemort.” While tensions may have subsided a bit, the dispute is unlikely to slide off to the margins. Regardless of the islands’ value, they have assumed too much significance.

In an ideal world, there might be an easy solution. For instance, both sides could agree to mutually reduce or limit deployments to the area while explicitly concurring that this would alter neither’s legal standing in the dispute. Even better, declaring the islands and their territorial waters a mutually recognized nature sanctuary would offer reason to keep ships out of the vicinity. Currently, however, neither side is likely to go for such a compromise. Unfortunately, the islands are now no longer just islands; they are burdened with too much symbolic and emotional baggage. To use another analogy, returning the islands to a place of insignificance would be like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.


Todd H. Hall is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations and tutor in politics at St Anne’s College. His research interests extend to the areas of international relations theory; the intersection of emotion, affect, and foreign policy; and Chinese foreign policy. Recent publications include articles on the dynamics of crises in East Asia, provocation in international relations, and the lessons of World War I for contemporary East Asian international politics. Professor Hall is also the author of Emotional Diplomacy: Official Emotion on the International Stage (Cornell University Press), which was named co-recipient of the International Studies Association’s 2016 Diplomatic Studies Section Book Award.

Image: Wiki Commons