Written by Cole Pfeiffer

Last Saturday, November 23rd, the bitter dispute over several uninhabited islands in the East China Sea reached new heights.  Japan and China, important trading partners and occasional adversaries, lobbed inflammatory rhetoric at one another after China’s decision to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea.

Establishing an ADIZ in itself is hardly an unprecedented move. The United States and many other countries have established Air Defense Identification Zones to safeguard their airspace. The problem with China’s recent move is that its ADIZ violates Japanese sovereignty.

Most controversial is that the new ADIZ includes the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands if you consult the Chinese), which have been hotly contested since 1971 when the United States transferred them back to Japanese control. The ADIZ would require all aircraft, civilian and military, to check their flight plans with China before entering the zone off of China’s coast. Japan’s adherence to China’s Identification Zone would mean its loss of unrestricted access to an area it claims as its own sovereign territory.


Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands in the East China Sea [Photo credit: Kyodo News/Reuters]

Both nations’ claims to exclusive sovereignty over the islands have deep historical roots. Japan’s claim is validated by the inclusion of the islands in the US-Japan Security Treaty of 1952. Since the United States recognizes Japanese sovereignty over the islands, it has sworn to protect them under Article I of the Security Treaty. Meanwhile, China’s claim is based on 16th century documents that acknowledge the existence of the island chain, as well as a history of the islands being important fishing grounds for Taiwanese fishermen.

Importance to East Asia

So what has got the second and third largest economies in the world so worked up over a couple of uninhabited islands?

At first glance, the islands seem to lack economic significance. Besides the remote possibility of establishing a small fishing port, the islands seem to give no tangible economic benefit to either side. However, controlling the islands is the key to controlling their valuable fishing grounds. Also, the Senkaku islands border important trade routes for both countries.

Lastly, similar to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the Senkaku Islands are suspected to neighbor vast oil and gas reserves. For two countries that rely heavily on fishing for a steady food supply, and trade and oil to fuel economic growth, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are of paramount importance.


Disputed Airspace in the East China Sea [Image: Chinese Defense Ministry]

There are also political considerations. Japan and China have a history of less than friendly relations. The memories of Imperial Japan are still fresh in many Chinese minds. The most obvious, of course, was the outright Japanese invasion of China during World War II. After Japan’s surrender in the war in 1945, China was forced to accept a slew of “unequal treaties” from the Japanese. In part, the ADIZ is a symbolic way for China to free itself from its subordinate relationship to Japan and the West.

From the Japanese perspective, the country is rightfully worried about Chinese expansionism and revenge. With China’s economy skyrocketing, Japan has to worry about a Chinese attempt to assert its hegemony in East Asia. For Japan, the Senkaku Islands dispute is a matter of retaining its own sovereignty and freedom of action.

Where does the U.S. fit in?

Immediately after the establishment of the ADIZ, the United States took steps to negate its legitimacy. On Tuesday, the United States acknowledged that it had flown two unarmed B-52 bombers through the zone. While China claimed on Wednesday to have been tracking the flights, it did nothing to impede their flight path.


A U.S. B-52 bomber departing from Guam on a training exercise [Photo credit: Danny Cantrell/U.S. Navy/AP]

China’s establishment of the Identification Zone clearly indicates that the country is taking steps to fill the power vacuum it believes the United States has left in East Asia.

To a certain extent, the power vacuum is a reality.

The United States is bogged down in a myriad of domestic issues and is still struggling to disengage from two wars in the Middle East. While the Obama administration promised an Asia Pivot, it might be years before that becomes a reality.

Therefore, it is important that the U.S. demonstrate its commitment to its East Asian allies, where possible. The B-52 bomber exercise along with the large commitment to relief for the Philippine typhoon, were both important gestures for the United States in terms of asserting itself in East Asia. In the absence of material capabilities, symbolic gestures can go a long way in reassuring nervous allies.


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