by Zhizhou Zhu

The end of the year 2012 does not mean the end of the territorial disputes between China and Japan. On December 31st, 2012, three Chinese government ships entered the territorial waters around the islands known in Japanese as the Senkakus or Diaoyus in Chinese.

The Senkaku Islands , which are located in East China Sea, are claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan and are under Japan’s control. (The situation is quite complicated, as China and Taiwan both admit that the island group is owned by Taiwan, yet Taiwan is also claimed by the Chinese government to be part of China.) The territorial disputes between China and Japan on the islands have been going on for decades. it has been brought back to the spotlight since earlier this year, when the Japanese government bought the islands from a rich Japanese family and triggered nationwide anti-Japan protests in China.

So what is so special about these islands?

The islands themselves are nothing valuable. The Island Group consists of five islets and three barren rocks. None of them is inhabited, so technically, the island group is just a few “rocks”. However, it is believed that there is a vast amount of natural resources, including gas and oil reserves under the East China Sea. Whoever owns the islands will not only own the rocks, but also the vast natural resources under the territorial sea as well as the exclusive economic zone around the island group.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, the East China Sea has between 60 and 100 million barrels of oil and 1 or 2 trillion cubic feet in proven and probable natural gas resources, and Chinese sources claim that there is maybe even more. Rumors have even suggested that the oil reserve under East China Sea could be as much as that in the Middle East. However, nobody knows the exact amount of oil and gas reserves in the area because the disputes have prohibited either party from further exploiting the resources.

Both Japan and China rely heavily on imported oil, especially Japan after the Fukushima Accident. After the accident Japan has shut down most of its nuclear reactors and has been confronted with a severe energy shortage . The gas and oil reserves in the East China Sea could be a solution to its energy conundrum. That might explain why Japan has been working harder lately to assert its claim to ownership of the islands. 

The situation has turned into an impasse for now. None of the parties are willing to give up the islands yet all parties are cautious to not take a step far enough to trigger a fierce conflict. Some news media predict a war between China, Japan and Japan’s ally, United States. However, the situation could get more complicated, considering Russia is right next door and has territorial disputes with Japan, too. If a war happened, everybody would lose no matter what the result of the war would be. The only win-win solution might be a cooperation between China and Japan in exploiting the resources. However, considering the complicated relationship between the two, it might take decades to achieve that goal.