top of page

What's in a Name: China and Japan’s Claim to Territorial Islands and President Obama’s ‘Pivot T

Five barren rocks in the East China Sea, over 100 miles from shore, are home to a growing international dispute between China, Japan, and their allies. Control over the islands have switched hands over the past several centuries but only since 1969, when the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) found oil and natural gas in the vicinity of the islands, have the islands become contested on the global stage. Since then, Japan and China have been vying for control and have turned the island into an important bargaining chip playing a significant role in the security of East Asia. President Obama’s meeting with Japanese president Shinzo Abe in April 2014 focused heavily on the territorial dispute over the islands. During the visit, president Obama reaffirmed America’s military support to Japan in line with Article V of the Japan-U.S. Security treaty. Despite president Obama’s military support, the dispute as to who owns the islands is no closer to resolution. Now, as the U.S. pivots toward Asia, the disputed territories are becoming a security issue to America and its allies.

These disputed islands go by many names. To the Chinese they are the Diaoyu or Diaoyutai Islands while the Japanese refer to them as the Senkaku Islands. ( China has claimed these islands dating back to the 14th century when they were merely a navigational landmark for naval travel. In 1895, as China’s regional influence was weakened due to prolonged civil and international conflict, Japan claimed these islands as their own. Following the end of World War II, Japan’s legitimate control of the islands was ambiguous, with conflicts existing between the terms of declaration in the Potsdam Declaration and China’s claims that the islands were taken in a wave of Japanese expansion during the Sino-Japanese War. Although the islands were almost exclusively used as fishing grounds for both nations, after oil and natural gas were found around the island in 1969, a renewed vigor in territorial control emerged. While the dispute has remained largely political, there have been several incidents involving military action taken by both the Chinese and Japanese navy. Now, as the relations between China and Japan have been consistently chillier, military tensions are rising and the United States is playing an increasing role in the naming dispute of the territory and attempting to balance the power in East Asia.

The pivot towards Asia has been underway since 2010 as U.S. forces have been gradually withdrawing from the Middle East. This strategy focuses on strengthening the existing relationships between the U.S. and its allies in the region along with creating a stable and peaceful platform in which future relationships may develop. The economic importance of this stability, including the future of the TPP, is the most immediate return on this strategy. However, as China increases it military spending and Japan’s navy continues to expand, it is clear that the long-term goal for the U.S. is to ensure that the region remains peaceful.

In 1952, the U.S. and Japan entered into the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States of America. This joint security treaty focuses mainly on Japan’s commitment to negotiate international disputes through peaceful means as dictated by the United Nations; but also emphasizes the U.S.’s military commitment to Japan. Two of the most important terms of the treaty are articles V and VI which state that should Japan be attacked, the U.S. would intervene and that the U.S. has the right to use the land, air, and naval facilities of Japan. These articles are the foundation of a strong rapport between Japan and the United States, with joint training programs being carried out as recently as March, 2015. The success of this treaty should not be understated. Amended in 1960, this treaty has lasted longer than any other alliance between two major powers since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. With the security of East Asia weighing heavily on the minds of the U.S. government, this treaty is likely to remain for many years to come.

Although China has been slowly withdrawing its military presence around the territorial zone of the islands, it does not appear that an end to this debate is in sight. China’s growing demand for oil and gas coupled with Japan’s increasing nationalism leads observers of this conflict to believe that this issue will not be resolved in the near future.

So what will be the role of the U.S. as tensions continue to rise in Asia? Certainly the U.S. must continue to protect its allies but still needs to keep positive diplomatic relations with China in order to improve economic development and potentially bring China into the TPP. Until then, the disputed islands will remain a point of contention and a hindrance towards the overarching goal of a peaceful Sino-Japanese relationship.


bottom of page