For several centuries, the Diaoyu Islands have been administered as one part of Taiwan and have always been used exclusively by Chinese fishermen as an base for fishing, both before and after World War II.
In 1874, Japan took Liu Chiu Islands (Okinawa) from China by force when Chinese Ching Dynasty was involved in several wars with other foreign countries. However, the Diaoyu Islands still remained under the administration of Taiwan, a part of China. After being defeated by Japan in the Sino-Japan War, China ceded Taiwan to Japan under the Shimonoseki Treaty. As a part of Taiwan, the Diaoyutai Islands belonged to Japan at that time.
Taiwan was returned to China at the end of World War II in 1945 based upon the 1943 agreement of the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations. The Japanese government accepted the terms that stated in these documents”…that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, the Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China.
After World War Two, Japan renounced claims to a number of territories and islands including Taiwan in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. These islands, however, came under US trusteeship and were returned to Japan in 1971 under the Okinawa reversion deal.
Japan has since insisted that China raised no objections to the San Francisco deal. And it says that it is only since the 1970s, when the issue of oil resources in the area emerged, that Chinese and Taiwanese authorities began pressing their claims.
At the heart of the dispute are eight uninhabited islands and rocks in the East China Sea. They have a total area of about 7 sq km and lie north-east of Taiwan, east of the Chinese mainland and south-west of Japan’s southern-most prefecture, Okinawa. The islands are controlled by Japan.
They matter because they are close to important shipping lanes, offer rich fishing grounds and lie near potential oil and gas reserves. They are also in a strategically significant position, amid rising competition between the US and China for military primacy in the Asia-Pacific region.
While any idea of a conflict is not likely to take place, the dispute rumbled on relatively quietly for decades. But in April 2012, a fresh row ensued after outspoken right-wing Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said he would use public money to buy the islands from their private Japanese owner.
The Japanese government then reached a deal to buy three of the islands from the owner in a move to block Mr Ishihara’s more provocative plan.
But this angered China, triggering public and diplomatic protests. Since then, Chinese government ships have regularly sailed in and out of what Japan says are its territorial waters around the islands.
In November 2013, China also announced the creation of a new air-defence identification zone, which would require any aircraft in the zone – which covers the islands – to comply with rules laid down by Beijing.
Based on guidelines that China’s Defense Ministry, any Japanese aircraft flying around those islands would need to submit their flight plans to China’s Foreign Ministry or civil aviation administration. They would also need to maintain radio communication with Chinese authorities.
China did not detail what measures it would take against aircraft that disobey the new rules, but defense experts say its military could scramble jets or even shoot down planes it views as a threat.
Japan has since labelled the move a “unilateral escalation” and said it would ignore it, as did the US eventually.
In 2014, the Japanese made further maneuvers in the region, such as that of a Fishing Commission meeting agreement between Taiwan and Japan.
The agreement grants, with immediate effect, increase in “the areas in which Taiwanese fishermen can operate” without interference by Japanese authorities.
Under the terms of the agreement, Taiwanese and Japanese boats can operate freely in a 7,400-square-kilometer area around the disputed Diaoyutai (Diaoyu or Senkaku) islands, according to James Sha, director-general of Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency.
As one may now see, this deal gives Taiwanese fishermen an additional 4,530 square kilometers in which they can operate free of Japanese intervention, and is no doubt a very important progress in the cooperative relationship between Taiwan and Japan.
In fact, the two sides have also agreed to set up a bilateral fishing commission to deal with other issues related to fishing in the disputed waters mainly near the Diaoyutai islands The commission is scheduled to meet annually but will do so more frequently if necessary. The agreement did not touch on sovereignty issues, and both sides agreed the arrangement will not undermine their conflicting territorial claims over the Diaoyutais.
The top priorities of Xi and Abe are their countries’ well-being. China and Japan have a massive and hugely productive economic relationship. Their people, the region and world need that trade and investment and the benefits for growth and development. But Beijing and Tokyo also have to negotiate a past of Japanese aggression during which millions of Chinese perished as a result of 14 years of invasion and war. With such a background, it is wisest to adopt the restraint of past leaders and leave resolution to future generations.
A string of incidents claimed by either side since the decades-old dispute flared anew last September outwardly give a different impression. The decision by Japan’s government to buy three of the islands, known by Japanese as the Senkakus, from their private owner, prompted a storm of protests from Beijing. Chinese surveillance vessels and Japanese patrol boats have since faced off and military aircraft buzzed one another, leading to maritime and aerial near-misses. Japan alleges Chinese frigates last month directed fire-control radar at a Japanese destroyer and a military helicopter, a step towards launching missiles. Beijing denies the claim.
Leadership transitions and a bitter historical context have been the backdrop. Xi was elected Communist Party general secretary in November and will be confirmed as president at the National People’s Congress next month. Abe took the prime minister’s job in December after a heavily nationalistic election campaign. At times of change, those seeking power are bound to adopt a platform of strength and assertiveness.
But they also know that escalating it beyond sabre-rattling is dangerous. Their diplomats have pushed feverishly for restraint. The US, bound by treaty to come to Japan’s aid should conflict arise, does not want or need war; its envoys have shuttled between the rivals to cool heads. Abe can expect more of the same when he meets Barack Obama in Washington on Friday. After Xi and Abe are more sure of their positions, a course of reasoned diplomacy will return.