A handout photograph taken from a marine surveillance plane
shows one of the disputed islets, known as Senkaku in Japan
and Diaoyu in China. Photo by Reuters.
A Chinese survey vessels go into the waters around the
disputed islands and Japanese patrol ships tail them much too
Twice last month, Chinese maritime surveillance aircraft flew
into the airspace around the Japanese-controlled islands and
Tokyo scrambled F-15 fighters to meet them. On the second
occasion, China then sent fighters too. Can these people be
The rocky, uninhabited group of islets in the East China Sea,
called the Senkaku Islands by Japan and the Diaoyu Islands by
China, are worthless in themselves, and even the ocean and
seabed resources around them could not justify a war. Yet
both sides sound quite serious, and the media rhetoric in
China has got downright bellicose.
Historical analogies are never exact, but they can sometimes
be quite useful. What would be a good analogy for the
Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute? The dispute between the United
Kingdom and Argentina over what the British call the
Falklands and the Argentines call las Malvinas fits the case
Worthless islands? Check, unless you think land for grazing
sheep is worth a war. Rich fishing grounds? Check. Potential
oil and gas resources under the seabed? Tick. Rival
historical claims going back to the 19th century or ''ancient
times''? Check. A foolish war that killed lots of people?
Yes, in the Falklands/Malvinas, but not in the Senkaku/Diaoyu
islands. Not yet.
One other difference: the Falkland Islands have been
inhabited by some thousands of English-speaking people of
British descent for almost two centuries. Argentina's claim
relates to a short-lived colony in 1830-33 (preceded by
somewhat longer-lived French and British colonies in the
1700s). Whereas nobody has ever lived on the
Curiously, this does not simplify the quarrel. Neither China
nor Japan has a particularly persuasive historical claim to
the islands, and with no resident population they are wide
open to a sudden, non-violent occupation by either country.
That could trigger a real military confrontation between
China and Japan, and drag in Japan's ally, the United States.
It was to avert exactly that sort of stunt that the Japanese
Government bought three of the islands last September. The
ultranationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara,
announced that he would use public money to buy the islands
from their private Japanese owner, and the Foreign Ministry
suspected that he would then land people there to assert
Japanese sovereignty more vigorously.
The Chinese would probably respond in kind, and then the fat
would be in the fire. But the Japanese Government's thwarting
of Mr Ishihara's plans did not mollify the Chinese. The
commercial change of ownership did not strengthen or weaken
either country's claim of sovereignty, but Beijing saw it as
a nefarious Japanese plot, and so the confrontation began to
It has got to the point where Japanese business interests in
China have been seriously damaged by boycotts and violent
protests, and Japan's defence budget, after 10 years of
decline, is to go up a bit this year. (China's defence budget
rises every year.) It's foolish, but it's getting beyond a
Meanwhile, down in the South China Sea, a very similar
confrontation has been simmering for years between China,
which claims almost the entire sea for itself, and the five
other countries (Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines
and Taiwan) that maintain overlapping claims over various
parts of the sea.
Military manoeuvres are taking place, non-negotiable
declarations of sovereignty are being made, and navies are
being beefed up. Once again, there are fishing rights at
stake in the waters under dispute, and oil and gas reserves
are believed to exist underneath them. The United States,
because of its military alliance with the Philippines, is
also potentially involved in any conflict in this region.
All this nonsense over fish and petrochemical resources that
would probably not yield one-tenth of the wealth that would
be expended in even a small local war. Moreover, the oil and
gas resources, however big they may be, will remain
unexploited so long as the seabed boundaries are in doubt. So
the obvious thing to do is to divide the disputed territory
evenly between the interested parties, and exploit the
This is what the Russians and the Norwegians did three years
ago, after a decades-long dispute over the seabed between
them in the Barents Sea that led to speculations about a war
in the Arctic.
The Japanese and the Chinese could obviously do the same
thing: no face lost, and everybody makes a profit. So why
don't they just do it?
Maybe because there are islands involved. Nobody has ever
gone to war over a slice of seabed, but actual islands,
sticking up out of the water, fall into the category of
''sacred national territory, handed down from our
forefathers'', over which large quantities of blood can and
must be shed.
China will not just invade the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands,
because it is not run by a drunken and murderous military
dictator (as Argentina was when it invaded the Falklands in
1982). But could everybody stumble into a war over this
stupid confrontation? Yes, they could.
• Gwynne Dyer is an independent London