Taiwan joined China and Japan in a growing dispute over a small uninhabited island chain in the East China Sea last month—a conflict that threatens to escalate into a trade standoff and possible military action that could involve the United States.
The island chain, called Diaoyu by the Chinese and Senkaku by the Japanese, has been the object of the territorial dispute because of its mineral wealth and prime fishing waters. With the historical bitterness between China and Japan, the dispute has become one of national pride—but some believe it could end in a military standoff.
China is Japan’s largest trading partner, so any form of hostility threatens economic ties and an already flagging global economy.
In the latest of a chain of events set off by Japan’s attempt to purchase three of the islands from a private landowner in September, dozens of Taiwanese boats set out to disputed waters in protest. They dueled with Japanese vessels using water cannons after the Japanese ships tried to force the Taiwanese boats back toward Suao harbor in northeast Taiwan.
The Chinese government issued an official objection to Japan’s actions—canceling an event to celebrate 40 years of diplomatic relations with Japan—as anti-Japanese demonstrations erupted in more than 100 cities across the country. Rioters set fire to Japanese-owned companies in cities like Qingdao. The unrest has driven many Japanese owners to temporarily close their factories in mainland China.
“No other territorial dispute has enraged China like this one,” said Fred Shou, a college student from Beijing. “China feels threatened from Japan like it has been in the past, but [China] has almost become a superpower.” In some Chinese cities protesting car owners are leaving at home their Toyotas and other Japanese-made vehicles, and riding bicycles again.
In Japan, the public reaction included anti-China demonstrations and public resolve: A survey conducted by one of Japan’s largest national newspapers, Yomiuri Shimbun, found that 65 percent of the country supported the idea of nationalizing the islands. “Japan has to tighten control over the islands, and eliminate the Chinese ships in the area,” said Saki Oohira, a Japanese exchange student in Washington state.
The fight for ownership began centuries ago: China claims that based on manuscripts written during the Ming dynasty in the 16th century, the islands were first discovered, named, and used by ancient Chinese fishermen.
But according to Japanese history, the islands became national territory in 1895, following documented field surveys of the islands that did not reveal any trace of Chinese occupation or habitation.
After World War II, Japan officially gave the United States administrative control of Senkaku Islands in the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951. But neither China nor Taiwan signed off on the transfer.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta during his September visit to China called for calm but also reminded Chinese authorities that if China attacks Japan, the United States would be responsible to defend territory under Japanese administration. “Our goal is to make sure that no dispute or misunderstanding escalates into unwanted tensions or a conflict,” Panetta told the BBC. The U.S. military has gradually bolstered its naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region, a military restructuring that China perceives as a direct threat.
Niwa Uichiro, the former Japanese ambassador to China, predicted that Japan’s purchase of the islands could spark an “extremely grave crisis.” But in southern China’s Guangdong province, college student Catherine Zhang does not think there will be a war between China and Japan: “People are overreacting. Japan is trying to make the Chinese public angry, and is deliberately trying to force us to lose our heads.”