History Today:The Senkaku/Daiyu islands, or ‘Why are China and Japan butting heads over a few tiny Islands’

Senkaku islandsAn intended regular feature of this blog is to look at modern events and discuss the history that lead to them.  Given Japan’s recent “Not an Aircraft Carrier” Aircraft Carrier, I figured a good place to start might be the cause of heightened tensions between Japan and China, the Senkaku/Daiyu Islands.

Like much of modern world history, while the genesis of the crisis predates it, the crux of the matter hinges around the 19th century and World War 2.  The Islands themselves are historically recorded by Chinese sources dating to the 14th century, though at the time they were deemed insignificant.  They haven’t had a serious population, at least not in modern times, and were, for most of their existence more or less ignored.

The Japanese occupied them in the late 19th century during their period of Imperial Expansion, during the Qing Dynasties slow downward fall.  They remained under Japanese control until the end of World War 2.  Under the terms of the Japanese surrender and later deals, all territory seized by the Japanese, all it’s oversees possessions and such were to be returned or surrendered.

The Senkaku/Daiyu Islands were part of this arrangement, and administratively fell to the United States.  At the same time as the Second World War was ending in the pacific theatre, the Chinese Civil war was raging.  In truth, the Chinese Civil War had started in the 30’s and really never stopped, merely a series of speed-bumps and intermissions as the two principal forces, the Nationalist Guomindang(GMD), who had functionally ceased control of the national government after the end of the Warlord period; and the Chinese Communist party(CCP).  There were several other political and military players within the conflict, though the majority ended up siding with the Communist by the end.  But the complexities of the Chinese civil war can be held for another time.  The important element was that it was flaring at the end of World War 2, and that the Americans officially supporting the GMD and recognized them as the Government of China.

This is significant in that the Americans had administrative control of the Islands, but both the GMD and the CCP recognized them as part of China.  When the Civil War Ended, and the GMD and it’s nationalists were forced to retreat to Taiwan, they still extended official control of those Islands to themselves.  Though given that until very recently they also considered themselves the sole legitimate government of China, it could be taken with a grain of salt.

Under American administrative control, the Islands existed in a sort of nebulous position of relative unimportance, owned in theory by some private concerns, but only becoming important when territorial waters and the issues of Oil became considered in the 1960’s.  By than geopolitics had settled into the Cold War dynamic.  The Republic of China(aka Taiwan) considered the Islands theirs.  So did the Peoples Republic of China, though they also considered Taiwan itself a Rebel province.  The Japanese considered the Islands theirs, and the Americans were fine with just letting the situation sit there, private Japanese interests holding the islands and sort of ignore the issue.

Thus the Japanese have had possession of the Islands in practice, if not in law.  Recent decades saw the thawing of the Cold War, but also a rise in nationalism within China and Japan.  The Islands have economic interests to both sides, and the Chinese are now in a position to assert territorial questions they weren’t in the 60’s, both by the extension of a more powerful navy, and greater international clout.  The Japanese sort of broke the defacto arrangement by asserting control over the Islands, prompting the Chinese response, which was likely disproportionate because anti-Japanese action and sentiment are big sellers at home.  There is a definite element of ‘wagging the dog’.

So there you have it, a territorial crisis as consequence of the terms of the Japanese surrender in WWII and American political positions during the Cold War, informing modern Asian Nationalist conflicts.

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