Japan is in a policy box of its own making regarding the Senkaku island chain. China has raised the ante significantly by giving its Coast Guard the right to challenge and shoot back in any confrontation with Japan around the contested island chain.

China’s choice of using the Coast Guard instead of the PLA Navy (PLAN) in its confrontation with Japan was a clever policy move for two reasons:

(1) It gave the Chinese a sovereignty argument by having the Chinese Coast Guard carry on maritime law enforcement operations and patrols in and around the Senkaku Islands as if they were Chinese sovereign territory.

(2) It avoided a military confrontation between Japan’s Navy and China’s PLAN. While Japan’s Navy is far smaller than the Chinese, it is very professional and modern. China surely wanted to avoid giving Japan any excuse for a military operation as it would certainly draw in the United States. The US has a mutual defense treaty with Japan and Washington has also agreed that the island chain is covered under the treaty.

In the latest “2 plus 2” meeting held on March 16, Japan “expressed a strong sense of crisis about the activities of the China Coast Guard, which the Japanese said, repeatedly invades the territorial waters around Okinawa Prefecture and the Senkaku Islands.”

The meeting, officially known as the Japan-US Security Council, was attended by Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. 

The Japanese also made clear after the meeting that they did not have a solution in hand and clearly admitted that China has been able to “establish facts” in Okinawa Prefecture and the Senkakus. 

Administration of the Senkaku Islands, which are uninhabited and consist of five islands and three reefs, is managed by the Okinawa Prefecture. The Senkakus are claimed by China and also Taiwan. In China, they are called the Diaoyu Islands.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks as Secretary of Defense Lloyd J Austin III listens in a meeting with Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi in Tokyo on March 16, 2021. Photo: AFP/EyePress News

Japan considered the islands as uninhabited and in the past (before 1895) they were unclaimed. Some of the islands were under private ownership and in 2012 Japan purchased four of the five islands, setting off a Chinese protest. 

Part of China’s response was to set up the following year an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that includes the Senkakus. Japan has exercised effective sovereignty over the Senkakus since 1895, excepting the period of US occupation between 1945 and 1972.

Some of the islands were previously owned by Kuniki Kurihara, a businessman from Saitama, near Tokyo. He bought the islands in the 1970s from a man who had inherited them through his family. 

Prior to the sale, the Japanese government rented the three islands from Kurihara, as well as a fourth island owned by another member of his family. Until the purchase in 2012, the Japanese government directly claimed ownership of only one island in the chain.

Neither Japan nor China has strong historical claims on the islands. A key reason for that is that the islands were not inhabited. China never asserted control over the islands or did anything to enforce its claim. Japan considered the islands “terra nulla” – that is, unclaimed.

It would seem that legal ownership of four of the five islands by the Kurihara family, going back into the 19th century, coupled with the fact that Japan paid rental to the family for many years, suggests that real estate ownership, which was never contested, probably best defines the legal framework for Japan’s claims.

In any case, the Japanese now are unlikely to negotiate with China over the islands’ ownership. China has suggested some sort of sovereignty-sharing arrangement, but Japan rejected the idea.

China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) bumps elbows with his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi at the start of their meeting in Tokyo on November 24, 2020. Photo: AFP/Issei Kato

Three hopes

In December 2020, in a press conference between Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the latter proposed a policy of three “hopes.” The three hopes he tabled were:

(1) The two sides should earnestly abide by the four-point principled consensus reached between China and Japan, referring to a 2014 agreement that included a promise to prevent the deterioration of the situation in the East China Sea through dialogue and consultation.

(2) The two sides should avoid taking actions in sensitive waters that may complicate the situation.

(3) If there are problems, the two sides should communicate in a timely manner and deal with them properly.

Motegi did not react to China’s notion of “sensitive waters.” “Sensitive waters” is a reference to Chinese-claimed waters that are, in fact, Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus. 

In his talk, Wang said, “some Japanese fishing boats of unknown origin [that] have repeatedly entered the sensitive waters off the Diaoyu Islands, and China has to make a necessary response.”

Worst case scenario

Japan is unsure of how strongly the US would come to its aid in case there was a military incident around the Senkakus. 

This week’s US-China Alaska meeting may help Japan to decide on its next steps regarding the issue, but so far it appears Japan is playing a waiting game while continuing to lose leverage in enforcing its sovereign rights over the Senkakus.

A worst-case outcome from Japan’s perspective would be some kind of deal in Alaska that might suggest China and Japan sit down and negotiate a Senkaku settlement.

Map: Twitter

The Biden administration appears to have a preference for “solutions” even where the solutions look like potential setbacks to America’s exercise of power. That attitude appears already in the Houthi Yemen war, in the US attitude to Ethiopia over the Tigray conflict and in US attempts to rejoin the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Whether these instincts carry over to China and Japan remains to be seen. But if one were betting, it seems likely the Biden administration will do whatever it can to defuse a conflict over the Senkakus. Will the same ultimately apply to Taiwan?

For now, Japan is in a policy box and must depend on the US for help or be forced into a deal with China that practically concedes sovereignty. It has decided, at least so far, not to confront China other than by hand-wringing.