In 1884, Japan allegedly discovered for the first time the Senkaku islands (aka Diaoyu islands, in China), which had been no man’s land. In 1895, the islands were officially annexed by Japan, after a short war against China. Some 170 km Northeast of Taiwan, these uninhabited islands have caused a lot of tribulations between Japan and China.
Why is that? Because of the oldest and most common source of conflict in the world: natural resources. Here is a very brief story of the problem.
The islands are small and have little use. After the II World War and Japan’s defeat, they were under the United States’ control and were a ground for bombing practice. In 1972, they eventually got back under Japanese rule. Nevertheless, in 1968, it had been found that under the Senkaku’s seabed there were possibly oil and gas reserves, which was enough to stir a dispute between China and Japan (although it is undeniable that, in strategic terms, the islands are well located and represent a vast source of fishing ground).
China’s claim to the islands is based on the fact that at some point in its history, the Diaoyu islands were used as a navigational point for Chinese travelers, particularly before the 19th century, and that several 15th century Chinese books refer to these islands. China also defends that the Potsdam Declaration, which marked Japan’s surrender, stated that Japan would relinquish its rights to several islands, including to the Senkaku. Taiwan, which China also claims for itself, also asserts a right over the islands, for their proximity to its territory.
In the end of the day, effectively, the islands belong to Japan.
While in the 1970’s China and Japan agreed that this dispute was not going to be an issue, it still is. In 2010, Japan created an official commemoration day for the annexation of the islands (January 14th). Then in 2012, Japan bought three islands which were privately owned, thus gaining control over the whole eight islands that compose Senkaku.
These different events did not leave China happy, and ever since 2012, tensions have been escalating around this small piece of land. Learn more about it in this interesting BBC Q&A.