Written by Misato Matsuoka.

The “Senkaku”, “Diaoyu” or “Diaoyutai” islands have been at the centre of a long-standing territorial dispute between Japan, China and Taiwan. There is no consensus about the historical trajectory of the ownership of the islands. The tensions, especially between China and Japan, have intensified, triggered by the collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats and Japan’s official announcement of nationalisation which made the Economist report that “China and Japan are sliding towards war”. The circumstances were further aggravated with China’s announcement of “East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone” (ADIZ) on the 23rd November 2013. Taiwan even conducted a joint exercise between the ROC Navy and Coast Guard in February 2014, considered as “an indication that Taiwan is pursuing its own national interests despite China’s announcement in November 2013 of a new ADIZ that heightened tensions in the region.” The disputed waters not involve only Japan, China and Taiwan but also the US via its commitments to the US-Japan defence treaty, positioning the US as a guarantor of Japan’s security. Shortly after China’s ADIZ declaration, US B-52 aircraft and South Korean and Japanese military aircraft flew through the zone in an act of defiance.

In the midst of the tensions in the troubled waters of the East China Sea, a Taiwan-Japan fisheries agreement was signed in April 2013 in order to resolve a long-standing dispute between the two sides. The agreement also established that any future talks would be conducted by the Japan-Taiwan Fishery Committee, bringing an element of institutional stability. Naturally, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed concern over the fisheries pact but that has not stopped both sides proceeding with further implementation of the agreement. In a first test of the new agreement, Japan and Taiwan agreed to new rules of operation in January 2014 in order to soothe the anger of Okinawan fishermen who were concerned about the absence of specific rules. Taiwanese Premier Jiang Yi-huah touted the progress made, saying that “The Taiwan and Japan Fisheries Agreement has not only protected Taiwanese fishing rights and increased bluefin tuna harvests, it has also won favorable coverage from many international news outlets.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also praised fisheries agreement. During his address at the East-West Center in Honolulu this summer, he noted that agreement “serves as a good example to promote regional stability amid escalating tensions in the East China Sea.”

As noted by Kawashima (2013), the fisheries agreement is intimately associated with Ma Ying-jeou’s “East China Sea Peace Initiative” proposal that was put forward by Ma amidst the crisis between Japan and China over nationalization of Senkaku islands. While Taiwan has not abandoned its sovereignty claim, as Ma’s peace initiative is based on the “sovereignty cannot be divided but natural resources can be shared” principle, its approach shows that seeking to resolve territorial disputes in the area through peaceful means does not have to be beyond claimant states’ reach. According to the Ting Joseph Shih, the head of the Taipei Mission in Seoul, the number of unresolved issues between Taiwan and Japan with regard to fishing was reduced to one since 2013 when the accord was signed, down from 17 disputes. Shih also argued that this lesson can be applied other East Asian territorial disputes. This is certainly an argument Taipei likes to push to promote Taiwan’s approach as a regional model.

Naturally, the US presence cannot be ignored in the context of the East China Sea disputes, especially with its persisting interests in rebalancing to Asia. US Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work claimed at the event organized by Council on Foreign Relations that the US will support Japan if the islands are under attack by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) under Article Five of the US-Japan Security Treaty, thus echoing the re-assurance given by President Obama during his April visit to Japan. Work further re-iterated an earlier commitment that 60% of US forces will be stationed in the Asia-Pacific region in the year 2020, reaching a total of 100,000 military personnel. While the US does not want to see conflict between Japan and China, it will seek to reinforce the current alliance network in the hopes that it will deter potential conflict, and if not, then the US and its allies will be prepared for it.

The most recent development has been somewhat calmer and a quiet decline in confrontations around Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands has been observed. Moreover, Japan and China’s top naval commanders talked informally during an International Seapower Symposium reception hosted by the US. Jiji Press, one of the Japanese major news agencies, remarks that the two agreed “to communicate more closely to help avoid unexpected incidents at sea.” In this sense, there seems less interest for all sides in aggravating the circumstances, which is also in line with the US preference to avoid being drawn into conflict over the Senkakus/Diaoyu islands. Thus, the recent developments suggest that all actors involved may be willing to reduce tensions and find more pragmatic arrangements. However, public opinion does not expect a peaceful resolution: more than half of Chinese see war with Japan likely. According to the survey conducted by Genron, Japanese nongovernmental organisation, and the China Daily, a Chinese state-run newspaper, 53.4 percent of Chinese and 29 percent of Japanese believe that there could be a future military confrontation. Considering the result of this poll, no one can be overly optimistic about prospects of peaceful resolution. Especially when a crisis can be triggered by a mere collision between law enforcement vessels and fishing boats.

Misato Matsuoka is an Early Career Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick and a CPI blog Emerging Scholar. Image Credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons/Al Jazeera English.