IN THE DIAUYU / SENKAKU ISLAND DISPUTE BETWEEN CHINA AND JAPAN, TAIWAN IS THE WILD CARD.
|Photo from Google Images, The Diauyu / Senkaku Islands from the air None are inhabited|
Japan calls the islands the Senkaku and China calls them the Diauyu both claim them as sovereign territory.
China claims the islands are part of their "Province" of Taiwan. Taiwan acts as an independent nation. Taiwan, mostly courtesy of the United States and U.S. allies is heavily armed and so far maintains its independent ways though constantly communicates with the mainland and takes pains to avoid stepping on mainland foreign policy. Taiwan has been pressing its claim for the islands in its own right with less total muscle than China but in at least one case with more aggression. Despite overflight by Chinese surveillance air craft and the occasional scrambling of fighter jets, and periodic invasions of Chines Coast Guard like vessels there have been no shots fired or ships rammed between japan and China. Not so Taiwan. Not long ago as described in these pages a Taiwan Coast Guard vessels escorted Taiwanese fishing vessels right into Japanese territorial waters surrounding the disputed islands in plain sight of Japanese Coast Guard vessels. The Japanese Coast Guard attempted to warn the fishing vessels away and when they didn't respond applied water cannon to the fishing boats. As soon as the Japanese Coast Guard opened up with water cannon, the Taiwanese Coast Guard ship crossed right into the Japanese territorial waters and went toe to toe with the Japanese Coast Guard in a water cannon fight. This was perhaps the first actual combat between any type of naval craft with non lethal weapons, but it was definitely and invasion and an assault in a legal sense. Of course both sides claimed exactly that. The fishing vessels made their escape under the cover of the Coast Guard water cannon fight and then the Taiwan Coast Guard broke contact and departed the area. Diplomatic protests were exchanged and it is clear that Taiwan is in the dispute in its own right, vastly complicating things between Japan and China. Meanwhile the situation is still crystal clear in terms of international law. Japan is recognized as sovereign over the islands by international treaty, and by a defense treaty with the United States which recognizes the islands as the southern boundary of the Japanese "homeland" that we are obligated to defend.
The Chinese do have some legal basis however for a claim. Prior to WW I they owned and apparently administered the islands. After WW II there were international accords that required Japan to return all "conquered territory". It is very unclear if the disputed islands fell into this category. China was absent from the treaty discussions due to the on going Communist revolution. The islands were never disputed by China when the opportunity was there. Since it is now a point of accepted international law that territorial claims based on conquest are rarely considered permanent unless the conquest was centuries ago and the conqueror followed on with successful settlement and administration, China might have a case in an international tribunal but insists on settling all China sea territorial disputes by "Bi Lateral agreement".
It is pretty clear that "Bilateral agreement" means China displays a lot of naval muscle and nations with competing claims, even if to their own beach quietly back off. In the middle of all this the Chinese Peoples Liberation army's navy (PLAN) is building up into a global force and is numerically though not technologically the superior naval force in the region. Japan is building up her naval forces and assisting the Philippines in building up theirs. Meanwhile Taiwan is building naval muscle too.
Most recently Taiwan has been conducting anti submarine drills. The nature of these drills indicates that Taiwan's anticipated potential "invaders" are no longer limited to mainland China. The most recent evidence of this Taiwan naval build up, increase in readiness and change of focus may be seen in recent anti submarine exercises http://focustaiwan.tw/ShowNews/WebNews_Detail.aspx?Type=aALL&ID=201301220027 .
As described in these pages recently actual transfer to Taiwan might not be a bad idea but it is complicated by Japan's domestic politics which seem to preclude a relinquishment of the uninhabited and controversial rocks without at least an international court decree. Taiwan has difficulties in securing admission to international tribunals due to the question of her sovereignty and lack of formal international recognition.
Things just seem to be becoming more tense and complicated in the China Sea and will only worsen so long as the Dragon continues to swim against the tide of international law and opinion.