Leaving aside the politics of Asia’s most hotly contested island territory, just what are the essential facts to know about this small group of privately-owned isles?
To the Chinese, they are the Diaoyu Islands, while the Japanese have long regarded them as the Senkakus. A long-simmering dispute over which country could claim ownership has exploded into the international media this year, with an escalating series of moves from both sides. Most recently, Washington stepped in on Japan’s side of the dispute, while the Chinese Vice-President made his opposition known in a meeting in Beijing with U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta.
Public emotions have run high in both countries; in China, protesters have taken to the streets to oppose the recent efforts by the Japanese government to buy the islands from their private owner; in Japan, hundreds of citizens have donated money to the purchase campaign. To the onlooker, it may seem like a lot off fuss about a few little islands. So what are the Senkaku (aka Diaoyu) Islands, and why do they cause so much controversy?
The controversial island chain appear to have little intrinsic value – a set of 5 craggy uninhabited islets and a few rocky outcroppings, the only use made of them appears to be as a nesting place for seabirds, like the rare short-tailed albatross. The largest of the islands by far is Uotsuri-jima, at more than 1,000 acres in size, followed by Kuba-jima, at 266 acres. Most of the other islands are so small and barren that any development would be unlikely. Offshore, however, is where the action is: oil reserves were discovered near the islands in 1968.
In real estate, location is everything – but in this case, it makes for a territorial dispute. The island chain is found slightly to the north of Japan’s tropical Ryukku Islands, which include Okinawa, and are north east of Taiwan and east of mainland China. Both China and Taiwan contend that the islands are part of Taiwanese territory due to their location on their side of a trough that they view as a continental plate boundary near Okinawa. According to Japan, the trough is simply a depression and not a real line of division, and so the islands are not on the Chinese side of any geological boundary.
As far as China is concerned, the islands have been under their dominion since their discovery by seafarers in the 14th century. Japan had control over the chain from 1895 to the end of World War II, after which they became American-administered until reverting back to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. Aside from a brief effort to build a fish-processing industry on Uotsuri in 1900 by a Japanese entrepreneur, no development has been attempted. The main islands have been privately-owned by the Kurihara family since the 1970’s, and now, according to media reports, the Japanese government is purchasing the islands for US $26 million.
A German research team gained a rare interview with the long-time owners of the islands, including some beautiful footage. Watch the video here: Link