China-Japan Dispute Over Islands Continues To Simmer

The Japanese Prime Minister is vowing to never compromise in his nation’s ongoing dispute with China over who controls a bunch of rocky islands in the South China Sea:

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has insisted that there could be no compromise with China on the ownership of a disputed island chain and denounced attacks on Japanese interests.

“So far as the Senkaku islands are concerned, they are an integral part of our territory in the light of history and of international law,” Noda told reporters at the UN General Assembly in New York on Wednesday, referring to an archipelago in the East China Sea that China knows as Diaoyu.

“It is very clear and there are no territorial issues as such. Therefore there cannot be any compromise that could mean any setback from this basic position. I have to make that very clear,” he told reporters.

“The resolution of this issue should not be by force, but calmly, through reason and with respect for international law.”

China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told his Japanese counterpart Koichiro Gemba at the United Nations on Tuesday that Japan had been guilty of “severely infringing” its sovereignty, according to Beijing’s foreign ministry.

“The Chinese side will by no means tolerate any unilateral action by the Japanese side on the Diaoyu Islands,” Yang told Gemba, according to his office.

Meanwhile, one Chinese foreign policy strategist says that the dispute between the two countries could easily spiral out of control:

The spat over the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands has escalated dramatically in the past month with violent protests across China.

But with a national election approaching in Japan, and a change of leadership in China, politicians on both sides have refused to step back from the brink, afraid that they will appear weak.

“There is a danger of China and Japan having a military conflict,” said Yan Xuetong, one of China’s most influential foreign policy strategists, and a noted hawk.

“One country must make a concession. But I do not see Japan making concessions. I do not see either side making concessions. Both sides want to solve the situation peacefully, but neither side can provide the right approach,” he added.

He warned that unless one side backs down, there could be a repeat of the Falklands Conflict in Asia.

Despite the heated rhetoric, Walter Russell Mead notes that the two sides seem to continue to be interested in talking to each other, at least for the moment. This makes sense considered the fact that the dispute has already disrupted a trade relationship that is hugely important to both companies, and has resulted in the eruption of sometimes violent anti-Japanese protests in several Chinese cities. There really is no rational reason for these two nations to get into a conflict of any kind over what are, in the end, some fairly worthless rocks in the South China Sea. Of course, as Mead notes, reason doesn’t always control these affairs:

[T]rouble remains. The islands under dispute arouse powerful sentiments in both China and Japan, including bitter memories of World War II atrocities. National pride is at stake. So too is an important trade relationship. Officials in Beijing and Tokyo may be all for talking it out, but if things spin out of control and nationalist enthusiasm erupts like it did a few weeks ago in China, when Japanese businesses were vandalized, they might find themselves hard pressed to back down from a confrontation.

All the more reason for the leaders in Beijng and Tokyo to resolve this thing before it spins out of control, I would think

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. JohnMcC says:

    It’s an interesting facet of present diplomacy how the past has left us with unsettled claims on small islands that never seemed worth much until now. The Argentines actually could make a case for their right to claim the Malvinas except that all those Falkland Islanders call them home. The Greeks and Turks have an ongoing confrontation involving rocks and islands in the eastern Med; the Israelis recently joined that fray on the side of the Greeks because the Turks might be inclined to claim part of a huge natural gas field under the sea in those parts. The Chinese and VietNamese and Philippinos all claim some islands in the South China Sea that apparently only are dry land at low tide but also have implications for oil/gas exploitation.

    If mankind should ever find a way to deal with — say — nuclear weapons stockpiles settling all the conflicting claims to the sea-floor and tiny islands would be a great encore.

  2. 11B40 says:


    Besides the obvious Middle Kingdom 2.0 putting down some stink, there are two things I would like to add.

    I watch a fair amount of the Korean Broadcasting System’s KBS World programming. The Japanese Empire’s 20th century adventures, military and otherwise, are far from a dead subject in that part of the world. Many of the quasi-historical serial dramas that I have seen are set in those times and places. While here in the now progressively enlightened USofA, Tojo and Hirihito’s Great Adventures are no longer of interest, on the other side of the dateline, the locals are not so inclined to forgive or forget. As much as our media enjoys its annual Hiroshima and Nagasaki bathos bath, the media folks in Korea and China refuse to join in.

    The other aspect is that what you think they’re after may not be what they are actually after. If you think about Taiwan as the target as opposed to those little bitty islands, the Chicoms may actually be interested in establishing some kind of naval perimeter or series of checkpoints around that which they have been desiring since 1950 or so. To add to the general confusion, Taiwan has now entered the arguments with its own set of desires/demands.

    Interesting times, indeed.

  3. This makes sense considered the fact that the dispute has already disrupted a trade relationship that is hugely important to both companies

    Freudian slip? 🙂

  4. DC Loser says:

    Taiwan’s demands on Diaoyu are exactly the same as the People’s Republics. Actually, a few months back, activists from Hong Kong used a Taiwanese boat to land on the Diaoyus and planted a Chinese (PRC) flag. This is an idea of Greater China that all sides on the Mainland, HK, and Taiwan can totally agree on no matter what their domestic political philosophies are. Similarly, Taiwan has had an outpost in the South China Sea since the 1950s, and the Mainland Chinese entirely support their claim (as I believe Taiwan has tacitly agreed to the Mainland’s territorial demands in the SCS).