The Senkaku Islands in the South China Thesis

International Relations

The Senkaku Islands in the South China Sea have become a warm zone, with China and Japan in particular engaged in military exercises in the region. The United States is another major player, offering full support to Japan including sending military vessels to the disputed area and threatening response should China try to seize the islands from Japan (McCurry & Branigan, 2014). The Senkaku Islands are presently uninhabited, but have been under Japanese administration since the U.S. returned them to Japan in 1972. The history of the islands is basically a convoluted legal dispute. China has old maps with the islands on them and assumes that meant they were under legal Chinese control. The islands were ceded to Japan officially at the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 as part of Taiwan. Taiwan was technically returned to China after WWII, but the islands remained under U.S. administration before they were returned to Japan. China believes the islands should have been returned when Taiwan was (Posner, 2014). Then there is the obvious complication that the People’s Republic of China has never for a single minute controlled Taiwan — even if they were legally part of Taiwan they would still not fall to the PRC, but to the Republic of China. It has been noted that China was never concerned about the sovereignty of the islands until hydrocarbon reserves were found in their territorial waters (Posner, 2014).

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This dispute, therefore, which naturally also involves a fourth party in Taiwan, is a good case study for international relations theories. There are essentially two issues at play here. There is the obvious issue of the hydrocarbons, their value and what they mean to these respective countries. The second issue, however, is that of global power and influence. When Japan seized control of the islands, and through the Second World War, it was a major global military power. While it remains an economic power, Japan has no military might. China was a debacle throughout much of this period, first living under Japan’s imperial rule and then going through a civil war and the predictably disastrous policies of domestic Communist geniuses. When China finally started to get its act together, it has risen in power considerably, to the point where it wishes to assert itself more regionally and globally. It typically does this through economic means, but has engaged its military as well on numerous occasions — in Tibet, in support of Pol Pot, and more recently around disputed islands in the South China Sea like the Spratly Islands and the Senkakus. Concerns are that China is also interested in the Ryuku Islands as well (Holmes, 2014). There is also the matter of strong historical grievance in China for the Japanese occupation and egregious behavior on the part of the occupiers.

International Relations Theory

The primary international relations lens through which this warm conflict should viewed is the realist perspective, since that is the perspective that best describes the key players. Japan has some elements of liberalism and there are undertones that can be best explained by constructivism but China, Japan and the U.S. are all historically realist actors on the world stage. Offensive realism in particular suggests aggressive and conflict as a major defining approach of international relations. This school of thought argues that nations should not trust each other, as they are in competition with each other. This conflict can surely be distilled through this lens. China is acting as the aggressor here, in part because it does not like the status quo, but mostly because it wants to establish its military credentials in the region. The U.S. And Japan have issued a strong response here, including war planes and naval vessels, to curtail China’s military ambitions in the region, which could extend to areas firmly within the Western sphere of influence like Taiwan and the Ryuku Islands. For Japan and the U.S., nipping China’s ambitions in the bud is a strong motivator for taking a military stance over the Senkaku Islands (Kirshner, 2012). For its part, China seeks to leverage and reinforce its bargaining power in the region. There is reason to doubt that China has a substantial interest in Senkaku. Any country would be curious about oil and gas development, and there is little doubt that China needs more domestic production, but the reality is more likely that what’s under Senkaku won’t power China for very long. The motivator for China here is probably bigger picture — extending its sphere of influence in the region. Most especially, China wants Taiwan. There is a lot of ego involved in the Communist Party of China and Taiwan, since the split of China left that country’s civil war essentially unfinished business. For China, Taiwan is the big prize in the region, but before it gets hungry eyes in that direction, it needs to build its credentials. Small islands are a good place to start, and China has a policy of claiming pretty much all of them. They are taking a realist view of the region, but they are also playing the long game.

The United States being the other serious military power involved is the other major player — all due respect to Japan here, but they’re tertiary. The United States has for well over 100 years sought to have a strong influence on the Asia-Pacific region. It has many interests, bases and territories in the Pacific region, and has for many decades maintain military presence in both Japan and South Korea. This has ensured that the region has been largely within America’s sphere of influence during that time, something that has allowed for a measure of stability in the region, Southeast Asia excepted. With China, Japan and Russia all present, the U.S. maintenance of strong influence has been an important stabilizing factor, and much of the world is now strongly tied economically to a stable Asia Pacific. For the U.S., the status quo is the ideal, not territorial expansion or even expansion of influence.

Japan’s perspective is a little harder to read. They want to keep the islands, if for no other reason than pride — they have never developed the hydrocarbons though being energy dependent they may wish to do so in the future. More likely, Japan’s interest is not to see its influence in the region reduced any further. Competition with China for influence is on a large scale, not just military, and in that respect Japan would fight for these islands on principle, as a matter of asserting influence.


Liberal theories do not take the same competitive worldview as realist theories, preferring to emphasis that the world is not a competition. Banking on the natural goodness of people, this theory includes international cooperation, dialogue, democracy and finding consensus among parties. This does not mean that there is no room for competition, but liberalists prefer to emphasize cooperation. For its part, China has until recently been more open to liberalist policies, such as joining the WTO and the Asia Cooperation Dialogue. However, recent actions indicate that China might be moving away from this approach. It could be argued that given the country’s rather limited embrace of liberalism, it only used the WTO to gain economic advantage, its newfound wealth providing opportunity to expand its influence globally in terms of economics and regionally in terms of its military. Japan and the U.S. have cooperated extensively since the Second World War, and on this the cooperation is strong. This is more bilateral than international, but all the same there is agreement that the interests of the two countries are aligned with respect to the power structure in Asia.


The constructivist view holds that societies are constructed and that they have the capacity to construct their own relations as well — rejecting both the realist view of inherent anarchy and the liberalist view that there is not inherent anarchy (Beavis, 2014). This approach is particularly useful in understanding the underlying dynamics between both China and Japan, and China and Taiwan. The schism between the latter two is entirely ideological in nature, and wholly constructed from their civil war. Any interaction between the two is not just generic realist competition, but rather an extension of the fight for ideological control of the Chinese people, and extension of the social egos involved — this conflict needs to be understood in the broader context of PRC-RoC relations.

The nature of the China-Japan relationship is important here, too. This is by no means simply a conflict over potential oil development. These two nations have long been rivals in the region, and this predates any U.S. influence in Asia. There are strong historical grievances on the part of the Chinese stemming from what Japan was stronger and China was weaker. China’s assertions with respect to Senkaku can be viewed as seizing an opportunity to reshape the China-Japan relationship, which was never really re-set after the Manchukuo humiliation of China. Even China’s relations with the U.S. can be viewed in such social context, as a Communist state seeking to assert its status in the world against the pre-eminent capitalist one, and perhaps even to redress historical grievances with the West for everything ranging from the Opium Wars to CIA support of Tibetan rebels and the ongoing support for Taiwan. The relations that govern this conflict are by no means limited to simplistic realist oil interests.

Complicating Issues and Possible Solutions

There are a number of different complicating issues. Certainly, the social construct issues identified above complicate things — given the history between China and Japan it is entirely unlikely that China can back down without being humiliated. The United States likewise can ill afford to be seen as weak in the region, not just for the implications that would have on China and its power (especially in relation to Taiwan), but also with Russia and North Korea in the neighborhood as well.

These complications make it difficult to find solutions. The first one is that one party backs away slowly, enough not to lose face. Given that Japan has international law on its side, that will have to be China. China is unlikely to do this, though it certainly does not have to tell its citizens that it backed off, so it can save a little bit of face. This option is the best because most countries have an interest in the status quo. If this is not China’s real fight, then it does not need to win this one either.

The second option is international mediation. This would require parsing through the myriad of legal issues. That is not all that practical, given that it involves the resolution of the Taiwan issue. Senkaku in that context has no real relevance. However, China may prefer to leverage the issue for something — they can certainly try but without possession they have little leverage. All the actors are quite well aware that open conflict is not in China’s best interests. The third option is just that — a military resolution.

Recommendation & Summary

It is recommended that China should back off from the Senkaku Islands. It has a number of other claims in the region, and all will bring about roughly the same response. The issue here for China likely has nothing to do with the islands. Senkaku may be a distraction for the domestic audience, or testing the waters so to speak to build its credibility. China is probably playing the long game here, with Senkaku being a stepping stone to the Taiwan issue. From a realist perspective, nobody gains from open conflict, and the West appears ready to call China’s bluff on this issue. Moreover, even if China took the islands, it would be a Pyrrhic victory. It would get a handful of rocks, some oil, and put the entire world on alert with respect to its military ambitions — future gains would become much more difficult with American and Russia fortifying their influence in the region.

The Senkaku Islands is the sort of dispute that serves nobody any goods. They are not material to the wealth of any of these nations, and their relevance to the power structure in Asia would merely be symbolic. It is the sort of conflict nobody can really win. Most likely, China will continue to posture on this one, before eventually backing away quietly, while retaining its claim to the islands. These three countries and China especially are far too pragmatic to see genuine value in keeping this dispute on the front burner.


Beavis, Jerry. (2014). The IR theory knowledge base. IR Theory. Retrieved April 30, 2014 from

Holmes, Jason. (2014). China might actually seize Japan’s southern islands. Foreign Policy. Retrieved April 30, 2014 from

Kirshner, John. (2012). The tragedy of offensive realism: Classical realism and the rise of China. European Journal of International Relations. Vol. 18 (1) March 2012 53-75.

McCurry, Justin & Branigan, Tania. (2014). Obama says U.S. will defend Japan in island dispute with China. The Guardian. Retrieved April 30, 2014 from

Posner, Eric. (2014). Why are China and Japan inching towards war over five tiny islands? Slate Magazine. Retrieved April 30, 2014 from

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