Conflicting Claims: China, Japan, Taiwan on Edge

Most everyone has heard of the South China Sea debate, the enduring argument between China and most every other state that has a coastline on that waterway. From Indonesia to the Philippines, every state is angry with China over its claim that it maintains full ownership rights to nearly all of the sea’s islands and resources.

That argument seems to be irresolvable. Well, a similar disagreement, less often discussed but even more intractable, hangs over another nearby patch of water: the East China Sea. There, Taiwan, Japan, and China each hold tenacious views about ownership of several islands and their surrounding waters.

This small group of islands is known as the Diaoyu if you speak Chinese, or Senkakus if you’re Japanese. In August, I attended a conference in Taipei known as the East China Sea Peace Forum—perhaps an oxymoron. People from the region routinely call these islands by a shorthand, the DSS.

Various surveys suggest that the area is a rich source of untapped oil, natural gas, and coal—as well as fish and other seafood. For example, Sheng-Chung Lin, chairman of the CPC Corporation, a Taiwanese energy company, said passive explorations have discovered between one and two trillion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas. And the US Energy Information Administration estimates that “the East China Sea has between sixty and one hundred million barrels of oil in proven and probable reserves.”

So, not surprisingly, China, Taiwan, and Japan are locked in bitter, intractable disputes over ownership.

China argues that it owns the entire area, just as it does the South China Sea, and will brook no argument over that. Japan counters that any efforts to negotiate are pointless because its ownership is irrefutable; there’s no reason even to discuss it. Speaking at the United Nations in late September, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe refused even to acknowledge the dispute, saying the “Senkakus are an inherent part of the territory of Japan in light of historical facts and based upon international law.” Japan already occupies several of the islands. At the same time, Taiwan also contends that the islands are part of its historical territory.

The bigger problem is that all these states dislike each other, to put it mildly. China hates Japan, and vice versa—a legacy of Japan’s brutal occupation of China during World War II, when Japanese troops are said to have killed at least ten million Chinese, devastating the nation. The two states also vie for political and economic relevance. After all, China and Japan have the world’s second- and third-largest gross domestic products, after the United States.

Adding to the dilemma, China does not recognize that Taiwan even has the right to exist as an independent nation—much less the authority to negotiate over territorial disputes. In fact, at times China has said it would be pleased if Taiwan won possession of the contested islands because Taiwan is part of China anyway.

And then there’s Japan’s relationship with Taiwan—virtually non-existent. Like most of the world, Japan does not maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan—but for different reasons. Most states, including the United States, are concerned they will irritate China by officially recognizing Taiwan. Japan unofficially recognizes Taiwan as the Republic of China, the government that ruled China during the Japanese occupation and until the Communist revolution in 1949. Today, that’s how Taiwan sees itself as well. Many Taiwanese believe they remain the rightful rulers of what they now call Mainland China, and they make the same claims to the South and East China Seas as the mainland does. As Ambassador Bruce J. D. Linghu, a director general in Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told me: “We claim all the islands in the South China Sea. It’s a historical claim for us.”


The genesis of this debate took place in 1946, just after World War II. That’s when the West pushed China to clarify any regional maritime claims. So, the Republic of China, the mainland government at that time, issued an official map showing its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. It came to be known as the “eleven-dash” map because whoever drafted it drew a line of dashes along the seas’ coastlines, which dip down to Indonesia and back.

Few paid attention then. As Linghu puts it, “Nobody opposed it at the time.”

Perhaps that was because, three years later, after a long civil war, the Chinese Communist Party defeated the nationalist Kuomintang party that had governed the Republic of China and seized full control of the country. The former government took up residence in Taiwan, kept the name Republic of China, and still claims to be the mainland’s legitimate government.

As for the South China Sea, the longstanding status quo remained in place until 2009. But then the time came for the nations of the world to give the UN documentation of their claims to any maritime territory, as part of the Law of the Sea treaty. In an unacknowledged historical irony, the Chinese government officially submitted that 1946 map—the one its former enemy, now resident in Taiwan, had drawn up—and asserted that nearly the entire sea and adjacent waters are “an inherent part of Chinese territory.”

This was the first time China had brought the subject up since the Nationalists did in 1946. And that’s what started the conflict in both the South and East China Seas. It has led to numerous seaborne clashes that, thus far, have stopped just short of shooting and killing.

So far, the most violent hostilities have been water-cannon fights between Japanese and Taiwanese Coast Guard ships facing off with Chinese surveillance vessels—the most recent of them in mid-September. No one has been hurt seriously, but some in the Taiwanese government told me they hoped to deploy what they called “more powerful” water cannons.

China sends patrol boats through the islands frequently—almost daily. It also utilizes its vast array of fishing boats, thousands of them, as an advance fleet. Small fleets of these boats sally into contested areas to see if they face a challenge. And more than once in 2013, Chinese ships “painted” Japanese naval vessels with weapons fire-control radar—a clear threat. So far, the Chinese have not fired any actual weapons, but the situation remains tense.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic conference in Bali, Indonesia, in mid-October, Chinese President Xi Jinping is reported to have actively “snubbed” Prime Minister Abe of Japan. As Chris Nelson of Samuels International’s Nelson Report wrote: “For China, of course, everything has to be run through the filter of strategic one-upmanship, as Beijing tries to discomfit Tokyo in hopes that Abe will at some point ‘blink’ so China’s aggressive pursuit against the Senkakus” islands “status quo will eventually bear fruit.”

Meanwhile, the US Air Force is stationing ever more fighter planes, drones, and stealth bombers in Thailand, India, Singapore, and Australia. In China’s view, that seems to betray the Washington mantra: The United States will not get involved in regional territorial disputes. Yet, in fact, the United States administered those islands, along with Okinawa, until 1972, when America returned them to Japan. All the debate then was about Okinawa. Hardly anyone even mentioned the DSS islands.


The current dispute leaves the region almost permanently on edge, never sure when these threatening feints will evolve into an actual battle—largely because, as President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan has put it, China “doesn’t want to sit at the table with Japan and Taiwan.”

Meanwhile, many in the region warn that a mistake or mishap could lead to war. As Richard C. Bush, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, put it in a speech during the Taipei conference: “Small conflicts can easily turn into major clashes. There is the risk that clashes can easily get much worse, and everyone suffers.” And Valérie Niquet, a China analyst at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, told the Christian Science Monitor magazine that a naval collision, or even an accidental sinking “could start something that would be difficult to stop.” The same issue of the magazine also offered a photograph showing Japanese and Chinese Coast Guard vessels passing within yards of each other.

As a further indication that it is serious about expanding its maritime territory, the maps the Chinese government prints in its passports now include the South and East China Seas. Because of this, Vietnam, for one, is no longer accepting those passports. Its border agents refuse to put a stamp in them and stamp a separate piece of paper instead.

Japan is not merely sitting back and watching. The country is actually building up its military, even though the Japanese Constitution drawn up just after World War II renounces war and military preparedness. But Prime Minister Abe seems to believe that the times have changed, and Japan can no longer survive as a pacifist nation. So he has started with small increases in the military’s budget but says the Constitution needs major revisions. He plans to launch a campaign for that. He also wants to manufacture or purchase surveillance drones, anti-ballistic missiles, and other weaponry. And he says he intends to recruit a marine force that can carry out counterattacks on remote islands, including the disputed islands in the East China Sea. In a government white paper last summer, Japan accused China of continually intruding on Japan’s territorial waters and its airspace, using “high-handed tactics that are inconsistent with international law.” China, it added, is guilty of “dangerous actions that could lead to unintended consequences.”

In 2012, the Japanese government actually purchased some of the DSS islands from private owners as a further assurance of sovereignty, infuriating China. Right away, Beijing sent several naval frigates into the waters around the islands, and the vice chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission publicly urged the ships’ commanders “to be ready for any possible military combat,” according to the Chinese state news agency Xinhua.

Today, Chinese Coast Guard boats still patrol the seas around those islands almost all the time. And in the summer of 2012, Japan arrested more than a dozen Chinese activists who landed on one of the DSS islands, where they paraded around and planted Chinese flags.


The only small bit of rapprochement evident in recent months was a fisheries agreement between Taiwan and Japan, signed in April 2013. The two states’ fishing boats were intruding into areas both sides claimed. So last year they negotiated an agreement that allowed both sides to use the waters—for fishing.

“Japan made the first-ever concessions with that fisheries agreement,” said Dennis Hickey of Missouri State University. That was particularly significant for Taiwan because it “needs Japan more than Japan needs Taiwan,” said Stephen S. F. Chen, a Taiwanese national security official. But even with this diplomatic token, the two states had to negotiate that fisheries agreement through NGO surrogates because they do not have official diplomatic ties.

President Ma of Taiwan has stepped into the broader debate in hopes of defrosting this seemingly intractable East China Sea dispute. In 2012, he proposed what he called the East China Sea Peace Initiative, an effort to postpone the sovereignty debate. As he put it, “The Republic of China, the People’s Republic of China, and Japan all have important claims of sovereignty over” the DSS. “People will never give in on sovereignty. It’s very difficult to resolve these issues.”

“Even if we submit this for arbitration at the International Criminal Court,” Ma added, “some will not be satisfied with the result. I repeat, sovereignty cannot be divided, but natural resources can be.”

Now, more than a year later, he and his aides point out that the plan has received a lot of positive publicity. As Linghu, the Foreign Ministry official, put it: “We’ve received high-level support from some members of Congress, scholars, and opinion makers” in the US and around the world. President Ma added that “we have seen tremendous media coverage around the world,” while Foreign Minister David Y. L. Lin pointed out that the proposed treaty “is being widely discussed; there have been two thousand articles in the international press.”

By almost all accounts, Ma’s is a good, innovative idea. It reflects well on Taiwan, a diplomatically marginalized little island. But it doesn’t seem to have even a chance of working, for reasons both historical and contemporary.

Since China’s 1949 revolution, mainland China has continued to assert that Taiwan is actually a Chinese province, despite Taiwan’s longstanding sovereignty claims. Threats of invasion have diminished as Ma has strategically engineered closer relations with the mainland. More than eighty flights a day now carry tourists and businessmen back and forth between Taiwan and China. Thousands of Chinese students study in Taiwanese universities. And most of Taiwan’s own manufacturing industry is located in China, where labor costs are lower. Nonetheless, almost immediately after taking office, China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, insisted that he will never bargain over his nation’s “core interests”—including its continuing claim that Taiwan is part of China. So, why would China sit down and negotiate with Taiwan over oil and mineral rights in the East China Sea? As China sees it, that would be like the United States negotiating sea rights with Hawaii.

Given all of this complexity—a Rubik’s Cube of conflicting claims and counter-claims, short-term strategies and long-term interests, the prospect of winning power and the danger of losing face—will these three countries really sit down together and negotiate reciprocal rights over all those rich resources in the East China Sea any time soon?

Not a chance.

Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize–winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times.

OG Image: