Friday, October 15, 2010

The Diaoyutais/Senkakus: Whose are They and Why Do They Matter?

      (This article is the first part of a two-part series.)

     The Diaoyutais, known in Japanese as the Senkakus, consist of a single island covering about 20 acres, and seven rocky outcroppings too small to be called islands. One can scarcely imagine China and Japan, Asia’s two largest powers, bothering with whose pile of rocks they are—until you look at a map and see where they are.
     The Diaoyutais are located in the East China Sea, astride one of the most heavily traveled sea lanes on Earth. Beijing is increasingly asserting its claim that the East China Sea is essentially a Chinese lake, as much as the Gulf of Peichili. Whoever controls the East China Sea controls one of the most important military and maritime choke points on Earth.
     Under maritime law, sovereignty over an inhabitable body of land includes an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) over the seas extending up to 200 miles from that body of land. If one country’s EEZ overlaps with another, they split the difference.
     If you assume that the Diaoyutais are Japanese, and that Taiwan is a sovereign nation, the line of demarcation between China’s and Japan’s EEZs would run more or less down the middle of the East China Sea. (See below.)
     On the other hand, let’s suppose that Beijing has sovereignty over both Taiwan and the Diaoyutais. The map would look more like the following:
     This would put Beijing almost completely in control of the southern sea lanes supporting South Korea’s economy and much of Japan’s. If bolstered by Beijing’s missile arsenal, Beijing could become an even greater threat to its neighbors.
     Beijing's arsenal of short-range and medium range missiles deployed against Taiwan has been conservatively estimated at 1,500. They also have more than 350 cruise missiles deployed against Taiwan. If Beijing were to succeed in its claims to Taiwan and the Diaoyutais, the missiles almost surely would be moved from China’s coastal provinces to the east coast of Taiwan and possibly to the Diaoyutai main island.
     Additionally, the fossil fuel and mineral wealth believed to be in the area could further fuel China’s geo-strategic ambitions.
     Who has sovereignty over Taiwan and who has sovereignty over the Diaoyutais are two separate issues, though they touch upon some of the same concerns. In some respects, the issues overlap.  In this article, we address the latter question and focus on the legal issues involved.
     It’s a complicated issue, and you never know what lawyers will decide when they get their heads together. Still, I’d like to give you some idea of what it will take to untie this Gordian knot.
First of all, they consist of only one island and seven islets. That even one of them is an island is significant because no EEZ can be claimed for islets, reefs, or anything else that is considered less than an island. The main island qualifies as an island in that it has an indigenous source of water and is habitable. At one time, 200 Japanese lived there.
     In the second part of this two-part series, I'll get into treaties and other important documents, and the legal, political, and historical issues.  Some will surprise even the readers who are familiar with the debate.

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