How Close Are Japan and China to War?
It’s been easy of late to get hyperbolic about the chance of conflict in East Asia. China appears to be the first serious military challenger America has had since the Soviet Union, and it is clearly beginning to throw its weight around in the waters of Asia. Especially raising tensions in the region is a passel of territorial disputes over islets that has pitted China against countries in southeast and northeast Asia and put Japan at odds with all its major neighbors. But the one key disagreement is between Japan and China in the East China Sea. There, an archipelago called the Senkaku Islands is claimed by Japan, Taiwan, and China. The islands sit near rich undersea oil and gas deposits, but, being situated just northeast of Taiwan, they also are in a crucial strategic location. They form the southernmost link in a chain of islands (including Okinawa and others) held by Japan that separate the East China Sea from the Pacific. The chain that ends with the Senkakus thus acts as a defensive barrier that conceivably could be used to prevent Chinese naval vessels from entering the wider Pacific.
Thus, Japan’s control of the islands presents a problem for Beijing. The history is murky, but Japanese control really didn’t start until the late 19th century. In 1945, the U.S. took over the Senkakus, and it returned them (along with Okinawa) to Tokyo’s administrative control in 1972. In recent years, however, basically since oil and gas were discovered nearby, China has reasserted a historical claim to the islands. Since the possibility of extractable energy reserves was discovered a decade ago, both Japan and China have tussled over whose islands (and resources) they really are. Half-hearted attempts at joint explorations for oil and gas have foundered due to mistrust and nationalistic intransigence.