The dispute between China and Japan over their dual claims to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands has little to do with nationalistic fervor and everything to do with oil and natural gas reserves discovered near the uninhabited rocky outcrops in the East China Sea. This is the information conveyed to WMR by intelligence sources in the region. Joint U.S. and Japanese energy resource surveys of Japanese waters, prompted mainly by the Daichi nuclear plant disaster in Fukushima, spurred Japan to investigate alternate non-nuclear sources of energy in their territorial and near-territorial waters.
Evidence that the area around the islands held exploitable oil and natural gas was discovered by a survey in 1969 conducted by the United Nations Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE).
The Senkakus, once called the Pinnacle Islands by the British Navy, were incorporated into Japan in 1895. Four of the islands, including Kuba, were eventually bought by Japanese business families. After Shintaro Ishihara, the right-wing governor of Tokyo prefecture, announced plans to buy the islands and annex them to his prefecture in order to stir up tensions with rival claimant China, the Japanese government purchased the four privately-owned islands.
After World War II, the Pinnacles became a U.S. territory and was administered as part of the U.S. protectorate over the Ryukus chain, which included Okinawa. In 1972, when the Ryukus and Okinawa, along with the Pinnacles, reverted to Japanese sovereignty, China and Taiwan contested the awarding of the Pinnacles to Japan. The Republic of China, a signatory to the San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan, believed that control of the islands should have reverted to China because of the Potsdam Declaration protocol of the San Francisco Treaty that stated Japan would only retain sovereignty over "the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku, and such minor islands as we determine." The Republic of China considered the provision granted control of the islands to China and that the islands were administratively part of Yilan County in Taiwan. However, Japan administratively placed control of the islands under the Okinawa Prefecture.
The U.S. continues to maintain a minor military presence on Kuba. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, during a recent trip to Japan and China, urged the Japanese to tame their rhetoric over the Senkakus and told the Chinese that the U.S. was not siding with the Japanese in the island dispute. The Chinese may have been more convinced of Panetta's sincerity if he had announced the U.S. would cease using Kuba as an aircraft bombing range.
Ironically, the Republic of China on Taiwan and the People's Republic of China on the mainland, which considers Taiwan to be a part of China, agree that the Diaoyus are a constituent part of Yilan County, Taiwan. The Potsdam Declaration was also used by the USSR to lay claim to the four southernmost Kuril Islands north of Hokkaido. Russia continues to occupy the Kuril islands, which may also have oil and natural gas potential, a situation that has heightened Japanese-Russian tensions over control of the islands.
The Liancourt Rocks, known as Takeshima by Japan and Dokdo by South Korea, lie in the Sea of Japan between South Korea and Japan, but closer to Japan. South Korea and Japan are engaged in a bitter sovereignty dispute over the uninhabited rocks. The reason has little to do with historic claims and nationalistic bluster but because the area around the rocks is believed to contain large natural gas reserves. In another ironic twist, North Korea, in a state of war with South Korea, supports South Korea's claim to the Liancourt Rocks.
However, recent Japanese-U.S. undersea surveys in the waters off the islands became known to China, which is also anxious to find alternate energy resources in its adjacent waters. The competition between Tokyo and Beijing for oil and natural gas in contested waters has led to the stand-off over the islands.
The northeast Asian disputes over control of uninhabited or sparsely-populated islands threatens to unravel what was seen as a burgeoning economic trading zone comprising China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Pacific coast of Siberia.