In 1972, the United States handed over control of a couple of uninhabited islands near Taiwan to Japan. Forty years later, the islands are the subject of a major dispute between Japan and the other major political powerhouse of East Asia, China. On paper, the Senkaku Islands, also known as the Diaoyu Islands, appear to be of insignificant value to either country. Why would any country care about 5 barren rocks that don’t appear to have any major resources?

Yet, as recently as last week, when China extended their air-defense zone to cover the Senkaku Islands, tensions have exploded between the two nations, along with Taiwan. The Japanese foreign minister stated that China’s unilateral decision would possibly cause an “unexpected situation.” Taiwan also responded with a statement assuring proper military accommodations in response to China’s action. The one-sided nature of China’s decision is an obviously aggressive move, and China must have anticipated the reactions from Taiwan and Japan, countries that have territories encompassed by China’s newly delineated defense zone. China would not have openly defied Japan’s authority without actively pursuing an agenda of some sort.

Last September, Japan had issued an equally tense political statement, threatening to shoot down any unidentified unmanned aircraft that entered the air space above the Islands after China had sent a drone to investigate the Islands. The tensions that arise from the Islands stem from naval accessibility. Although it has a long coastline, China is essentially a landlocked country in terms of having open military access to the oceans. Five hostile countries, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam, surround China’s coast at various points, essentially blocking China from having an effective entryway into the Pacific. By commanding the Islands, Japan occupies even more land that blocks off China’s Pacific presence.   

At this time, it appears that negotiations between the two countries are going nowhere. Both are vying for full control of the islands without any willingness to compromise. However, as part of the generally nationalistic trend that has defined the 20th and 21st Centuries, the Islands should belong to Taiwan. Although the United States technically did hand over control of the Islands to Japan, it is important to recognize and understand the cultural origins of the people that have coexisted with the Islands. Sure, the Islands are uninhabited, but they have always been a part of the Chinese and Taiwanese cultures. If the United States is concerned about the growing influence of a possibly hostile China in the Pacific and how the acquisition of the Islands would affect this trend, it should heavily advocate a compromise between Japan and China or give full control of the Islands to Taiwan. Although Japan is the stronger nation compared to Taiwan in terms of defending the Islands if China ever does become overaggressive, it is important to consider US-China relations before committing to supporting any one side. Taiwan is a stable ally of the States and has much better relations with China, grounded in a common heritage that China does not share with Japan, than Japan does. This action would alleviate China’s current militant stance with the Islands and perhaps open the door for peaceful negotiations over the Islands.  

Although giving full control of the Islands to Taiwan would be too much action as of now, it is growing clear that the status quo is not going anywhere.