Economics, not history, drives Chinese claims to the Senkaku Islands

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Four Chinese Coast Guard vessels entered Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands on August 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II, according to the news. Two of the Chinese ships left in the early afternoon, but two others cruised in Japanese waters for several hours before finally leaving around 8 p.m.

It followed two Chinese coastguard vessels that strayed into Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands, which are part of the city of Ishigaki in Okinawa’s southernmost prefecture, a day earlier. August 14and two other Chinese government vessels that entered Japanese waters August 72022.

On August 15, like August 7 and in many previous cases, the Japanese Coast Guard moved to protect a Japanese fishing boat from Chinese government vessels and ordered the Chinese vessels to leave Japanese waters.

According to the 11 Japanese Coast Guarde regional headquarters in the capital of Okinawa, Naha, on August 7, the Chinese coast guard Haijing ships entered Japanese waters, including from south-southwest of Taisho Island in the Senkaku Range. They then left the waters to the west-southwest of the island.

Senkaku Islands, Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan.

Behind Chinese Belligerence

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

Japan’s national security became intertwined with energy 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. , sparking controversy over the contemporary history and future of the islands thereafter.

The future of offshore oil development was a major driver of Beijing’s claims on the Senkakus at the time. The area, which touches 20,750 square nautical miles of maritime space and mineral resources, is also very close to Taiwan.

Discover potential hydrocarbon deposits

In the background is the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), later 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 Coordinating Committee for Joint Exploration of Mineral Resources in Asian Offshore Areas (CCOP).

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

The strategic and economic consequences of the 1969 report were the turning point, giving impetus to China’s interest in the region and culminating in today’s struggle against the Senkaku.

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

Basis of China’s claims

China, beyond its usual dependence on its ” [ancient] times,” did not provide actual archival evidence to support its alleged claims of Chinese presence and control or sovereignty over the islands prior to the late 1800s. international law that ownership of the territory is legally strengthened if the territory is public and uncontested during that particular period.

China was prompted to press for its territorial claims ー including the entire continental shelf up to the Okinawa Trench for the delineation of a China-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 servicemen stand near a Chinese army J-10C aircraft during the 13th China International Aviation and Aerospace Expo in September 2021, in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. The J-10C is one of the aircraft used in the PLA sorties against Taiwan. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Taiwan element

The determination and relevance of the critical date becomes a key point in understanding the complexity of China’s claims to the Senkaku Islands, and more so China’s failure to claim the islands until 1970-71. China, as well as Taiwan, have chosen to rely primarily on historical chronologies of occasional use, which remain contradictory based on evidence in archived documents.

The inaction of China and Taiwan over their alleged claims to the Senkaku Islands during the years when Japan’s sovereignty was recognized, including the material period from 1895 to 1969, when the existence of vast oil deposits was discovered and announced.

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Should Chinese and Taiwanese inaction during this period be interpreted as acquiescence to the Senkaku Islands being part of the Ryukyu Islands?

To the extent that national identity, sovereignty or military-strategic interests overlap on these islands, the statistics sufficiently prove that Beijing’s immense economic stakes in extracting hydrocarbon resources from the East China Sea are directly related to its self-proclaimed land claims.

Lead to diversifying import dependence

According to a World Energy Outlook survey, published by the International Energy Agency, China’s oil imports is likely to reach nearly 500 million tonnes by 2030 – the highest level in absolute terms for any country or region.

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

Therefore, the domestic oil and gas supply of these regions depends on imports from the far northern and western provinces. This turns out to be very costly and insufficient.

By contrast, transporting oil and gas from the East China Sea continental shelf would be much easier and more cost-effective. It is located less than about 500 km from the coastal region of China. These economic and logistical drivers make the East China Sea’s oil and gas reserves a far more beneficial incentive for China’s territorial claims.

Conclusion

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

A primarily realistic and geopolitical approach to understanding China’s 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 negotiation.

It is rare that a single factor can determine how the politics surrounding a land issue would work. Asia’s territorial issues will continue to include material, ideal, structural and legal/normative themes.

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

Ultimately, however, Beijing has nothing more to back up its claims in these areas than its non-exhaustive and legally weak historical accounts.

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Author: Monika Chansoria

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