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Politics & Security

Economics, Not History, are Driving China's Senkaku Islands Claims

Beijing’s immense economic stakes in extracting hydrocarbon resources from the East China Sea are directly linked to its self-professed territorial claims.

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Chinese Coast Guard frigate sails in Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands in September 2021.

Four Chinese Coast Guard vessels intruded into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands on August 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II, according to news reports. Two of the Chinese vessels left by early afternoon, but two others sailed in the Japanese waters for several more hours before finally leaving by about 8 PM.

This followed two Chinese Coast Guard vessels that intruded inside Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands, which are part of Ishigaki City in the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, one day earlier on August 14, and two others Chinese government vessels who entered Japanese waters on August 7, 2022. 

On August 15, as on August 7 and in many earlier instances, the Japan Coast Guard moved to protect a Japanese fishing boat from the Chinese government ships and ordered the Chinese vessels to leave Japanese waters. 

According to the Japan Coast Guard’s 11th regional headquarters in the Okinawa capital of Naha, on August 7 the Chinese Coast Guard Haijing ships entered Japanese waters, including from south-southwest of Taisho Island in the Senkaku chain. They later left the waters from west-southwest of the island.

Senkaku Islands, Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan.

Behind China’s Belligerence 

These contemporary security tensions occur against a well-recorded and archived past in the debate over the status of the Senkaku Islands. China had not contended that it had sovereignty over the islands until the decade of the 1960s. 

Japan’s national security became critically linked to the power arrangements in East Asia with the discovery of oil and hydrocarbons around the Senkaku Islands in 1969. It was in this reference that China “rediscovered” the Senkaku Islands, setting off a controversy over the contemporary history and ensuing future of the islands thereafter. 

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The future of offshore oil development was among the primary drivers behind Beijing’s claims over the Senkakus at the time. The area, which affects 20,750 square nautical miles of maritime space and mineral resources, is also very near to Taiwan.

Discovering Potential Hydrocarbon Deposits

In the background is the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), which later became known as the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). The organization oversaw extensive geophysical surveys of the seabed in the region in 1968 and 1969 through its Committee for Coordination of Joint Prospecting for Mineral Resources in Asian Offshore Areas (CCOP). 

The findings of the surveys suggested the possible existence of the “richest seabed with oil and hydrocarbon deposits” in the waters off the Senkaku Islands. 

The strategic and economic consequences of the 1969 report were the turning point, providing impetus to China’s interest in the region and resulting in today’s contest over the Senkakus. 

This historical context also helps explain the vital contemporary geopolitical and strategic relevance of the Senkaku Islands.

Basis for China’s Claims

China, beyond its usual reliance on its “since historical [ancient] times” argument, has failed to provide actual archival evidence to back up its purported claims of Chinese presence in and control or sovereignty over the islands prior to the late 1800s. Beijing is doubtless counting on creating a perception that fits the feature of international law under which appropriation of territory is legally strengthened if the territory is public and not contested during that particular period.

China was goaded to press for its territorial claims ー including the whole continental shelf up to the Okinawa Trough for the delimitation of a Chinese-claimed EEZ ーwhen the 1969 report established the possibility of substantial oil and gas resources in the East China Sea in and around the Senkakus. 

Chinese military personnel stand near a Chinese military's J-10C airplane during the 13th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in September 2021, in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. J-10C is one of the planes used in PLA sorties against Taiwan. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Taiwan Element

The determination and relevance of the critical date becomes a key point for understanding the complexity of China’s claims over the Senkaku Islands, and more so China’s failure to stake any claim to the Islands until 1970-71. China, as well as Taiwan, have chosen to mainly rely on historical timelines of occasional use, which remain self-contradictory going by the evidence on archived records. 

There is a critical legal implication of the inaction by both China and Taiwan on their professed claims over the Senkaku Islands during the years Japan’s sovereignty has been recognized, including the material period from 1895 to 1969, when the existence of vast oil deposits was unearthed and announced. 

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Should the Chinese and Taiwanese inaction during that period be construed as acquiescence over the Senkaku Islands as being part of the Ryukyu Islands?

To the extent that national identity, sovereignty or military-strategic interests overlap over these Islands, statistics are proof enough that Beijing’s immense economic stakes in extracting hydrocarbon resources from the East China Sea are directly linked to its self-professed territorial claims.

Drive to Diversify Reliance on Imports

According to a World Energy Outlook survey, released by the International Energy Agency, China’s oil imports will likely reach close to 500 million tons by 2030 – the highest in absolute terms for any country or region. 

In this context, Southeast China’s coastal areas, particularly the Shanghai municipal region and Zhejiang Province, remain its most critical industrial (and thus energy-consuming) bases. However, they have almost no hydrocarbon resources in their own territory. 

Consequently, the domestic oil and gas supply for these regions relies on imports from the far northern and western provinces. This proves to be very costly and insufficient. 

By contrast, the transportation of oil and gas from the East China Sea’s continental shelf would be much easier and cost-effective. It is located within 500 kms approximately of China’s coastal region. These economic and logistical drivers render the oil and gas reserves in the East China Sea a far more beneficial incentive for China’s territorial claims.

Conclusion

To conclude, Beijing’s politico-military narrative surrounding the territorial issues in the East China Sea and the South China Sea will remain heavily driven by China’s rising energy needs – all in the name of “territory.” 

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A predominately realist and geopolitical approach to understanding China’s assertions of territorial claims to the Senkaku Islands requires a rigorous analysis of the pattern of many variables. They include China’s domestic politics, Beijing’s international negotiations, and interactions that remain dominated by contemporary theories of diplomacy and bargaining. 

It is rare when a single factor could determine the way politics surrounding a territorial issue would work. Asia’s territorial issues shall continue to include material, ideational, structural and legal/normative themes. 

In this setting the geopolitical implications of the legacies of Asia’s colonial past continue to color its geostrategic future. China uses that history as it continues to brazenly justify its creeping territorial expansionism in its land borders with India and maritime borders in the South and East China Seas. 

In the end, however, Beijing has no more to support its claims in these regions than its non-comprehensive and legally-weak historical narratives.

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Author: Monika Chansoria

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