China’s decision to impose new airspace restrictions over the disputed Japanese-controlled islands known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, is a disturbing development in a long-running conflict between the two Asian powers.
The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said yesterday that China’s move to impose its procedures on foreign aircraft flying over the islands will have a serious destabilising effect, escalating a tense situation and endangering regional security.
Many small islands around the world are the subject of rival territorial claims, including the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea, which are claimed by Vietnam, China and Taiwan; Taiwan itself, which China regards as a renegade province; and Abu Musa and the Tunbs in the Arabian Gulf, which are claimed by the UAE and Iran.
Then there are the Falkland Islands, or Malvinas, in the South Atlantic, which were the subject of a war between Britain and Argentina in 1982 and continue to be a point of contention between the two nations.
The Japanese-Chinese conflict involves a long history and a tense present. There is evidence of Chinese possession before the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894-1895, but the islands have been under Japanese control since then, except from 1945 to 1972 when they were under US administration.
The Japanese government complicated matters further when it purchased the islands from private owners in 2012, prompting angry protests across China.
For its part, China has shown its determination to explore the islands and their surrounding waters, which are said to be rich in natural gas and other mineral resources.From the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the Gulf of Thailand in the south, the East Asian seas are dotted with small islands and rocky outcrops, many with complex histories and even more knotty sovereignty claims.
The simplest way to solve these territorial disputes would be for all the countries affected to agree to binding arbitration by an international body. The claims and counter-claims are so complex and the potential for conflict so great, that nothing short of a sweeping, region-wide agreement will produce long-term peace.