Scenario

On September 7, 2010, Japanese authorities detained a Chinese fishing boat captain Zhan Qixiong and 14 members of his crew after his trawler collided with two Japanese coast guard ships near islands claimed by both countries. China's response was swift and angry. On September 11, China called for Japan to release Mr. Zhan and his crew, saying that the confrontation could seriously damage bilateral relations. Three days later, Japan freed the crew but kept Mr. Zhan. On September 19, New York Times wrote that "what started nearly two weeks ago with the Japanese Coast Guard’s arrest of a Chinese trawler captain in disputed waters has snowballed into a heated diplomatic standoff between China and Japan." China began to threaten economic sanctions, suspending rare earth mineral exports to Japan. Activists in Chinese-speaking regions such as Taiwan and Hong Kong spoke up and protested Japan's decision to detain Mr. Zhan, when Japan insisted that it was only following protocol.

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Why had this seemingly minor incident escalated into a highly emotional issue between two neighboring countries?

Geography

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Map 1
The dispute involves a group of eight uninhabited islands, called the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese, in the East China Sea. Their land area covers only 6.3 square kilometrers and are approximately 120 nautical miles (nm) northeast of Taiwan, 200 nm east of the Chinese mainland, and 200 nm southeast of Okinawa (see Map 1, left)

The big picture
According to geological surveys, the continental shelf adjacent to the islands are believed to contain 10-100 billion barrels of oil. No tests have been conducted because neither country wants to further aggravate the other by drilling test wells in the disputed area. As of 2010 China has become the world's biggest energy consumer, overtaking the U.S., who has long held the title of No. 1 energy consumer. Its oil consumption is forecast to grow to 590 million metric tons in 2020 from 220 million tons in 2000. China with its rapid rise and Japan with its economic malaise are reasons for the fierce competition over oil to fuel their economic growth.

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Map 2. The islets are: 1) Uotsuri Jima/Diaoyu Dao 2) Taisho Jima/Chiwei Yu 3) Kuba Jima/Huangwei Yu 4) Kita Kojima/Bei Xiaodao 5) Minami Kojima/Nan Xiaodao 6)Okino Kitaiwa/Da Bei Xiaodao 7) Okino Minami-iwa/Da Nan Xiaodao 8) Tobise/Yan Jiaoyan or Fei Jiaoyan

*Note: The unique status of Taiwan further complicates the issue. Taiwan is 80nm closer to the islands than the mainland. If Beijing's effective rule extends to Taiwan, not only do the islands belong to the People Republic of China (PRC), but the PRC's EEZ would move further east, significantly weakening the legitimacy of the current Japanese-drawn "median line" and pushing the middle line further toward Japan. Taiwan maintain an independent claim on the islands.

To know more about the controversy, or for any inquiries about the website, contact the author at chin22o@mtholyoke.edu