In the East China Sea, north off the coast of Taiwan and south off the coast of Okinawa, there exists an island chain consisting of five small islets, and three smaller rocks. These islands — known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, the Diaoyu Islands in China, and the Diaoyutai Islands by Taiwan — are the subject of a longstanding territorial dispute between those three states, and in recent months the dispute has become heated once again. military and diplomatic sparring over the islands has resumed once again.
China claims the islands are part of its sovereign territory, having been wrongfully stolen by Japanese military expansions in the late 19th century. Japan, in turn, claims that it is the rightful sovereign of the Senkakus, alleging that the islands were terra nullius until 1895, when Japan incorporated the islets by cabinet decision. Japan further asserts sovereign title to the islands owing to China’s failure to object to Japan’s claims of sovereignty for over seventy years, until China first raised a competing claim to the islands in 1970.
Not coincidentally, China’s first assertions of sovereignty over the Senkakus were made just one year after seismic surveys of the sea floor surrounding the islands had discovered the existence of significant oil and gas reserves. But while the discovery of natural resources in the East China Sea precipitated the ongoing territorial dispute between China and Japan, during this same time period there was another event occurring that would prove equally responsible: the development of modern international law of the sea. As result, the Senkaku Islands became a massively valuable commodity, and a previously dormant territorial dispute has become a flashpoint. Both Japan and China argue that, under international law, they are the rightful owners of the land.
The problem is, despite all the diplomatic strife and threats of military action, no one actually wants the Senkaku Islands.
And why would they? Seriously, look at these things:
Hardly anything there to speak of — and these are the three of the four biggest islets in the Senkaku Islands. In all, the island chain is nothing more than a barren 1,700 acres of sand, scrub, and rock. A few endangered moles live there, along with some feral goats, but the Senkakus are not suitable for human habitation. It is debatable whether any fresh water sources even exist on the islands, and previous attempts at establishing industry on Uotsuri, the largest islet, have all ended in failure.
The above-water portions of the Senkaku Islands are of negligible value. But the islands’ worthlessness is irrelevant to the intensity of the dispute over their ownership. China and Japan do not seek possession of the Senkakus because they wish to possess the islands, but because possession of the Senkakus is a mechanism for obtaining possession over the surrounding sea. In other words: possession of the Senkakus is a means, not an end.
In previous eras, when competing claims of sovereignty over a territory could not be determined by reference to either treaties or to customary international law, there did remain one additional mechanism that states could resort to for conclusively resolving the question of ownership. That particular mechanism, however, has now been expressly prohibited by Article 2 of the UN charter. With sovereignty-by-conquest no longer a sanctioned means of dispute resolution, and when the states involved in the dispute have no interest in submitting the matter to an adjudicative body, the result is an effective stalemate. In a fruitless attempt to resolve the conflict by reference to international law, Japan and China have now been reduced to squabbling over ancient maps and conflicting historical accounts.
This is the current status of the Senkaku Islands, and of numerous other disputed island territories off the coast of China and Japan. Japan and China can each point to various 19th century maps or little-noticed governmental decrees to bolster their claims of sovereignty. But based on the existing historical record concerning the occupation and use of the Senkaku Islands, neither China nor Japan can convincingly demonstrate a superior claim.