Eric Posner on Diaoyu/Senkaku

Why Are China and Japan Inching Toward War Over Five Tiny Islands?

Five tiny uninhabited islands slumber in the Pacific Ocean a short distance from Taiwan, China, and Japan. The Japanese call them the Senkaku Islands. The Chinese call them the Diaoyu Islands. Japan controls the islands, but China wants them. While international law favors Japan, it would be a mistake to think the law will stop China from grabbing them. That means that even though no one uses the islands currently for anything, if World War III takes place anytime soon, this is where it will start—implausible as that may sound.

Japan argues that the islands were vacant until 1895, when the Japanese government laid claim to them. Japanese nationals used and lived on them in the following decades—a fish-processing plant owned by a Japanese national once chugged away here. China did not dispute Japan’s claim to the islands during this period. Nor did China object when the United States took control of them during the occupation of Japan starting in 1945. The U.S. handed the islands back to Japan in 1972.

But since the early ’70s, China has argued that Japan seized the islands in violation of international law. China argues it owned the islands before 1895, based on some ancient Chinese texts and maps that it says show that the Chinese regarded the islands as theirs, which would mean Japan’s seizure of the islands violated China’s rights. Also, in China’s view, Japan obtained control over the islands as a result of a treaty that ended the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895. Japan took control of the islands, via the treaty, when it forced China, which lost the war, to cede Taiwan to Japan—and in China’s view, the islands are part of Taiwan. When Taiwan was returned to China after World War II, the islands should have gone back with it. Except that by that time, Japan was occupied by the United States, which took administrative control over the islands (without claiming sovereignty) and then returned control of the islands to Japan in 1972.