Russia-Ukraine War effects on the Senkaku Islands conflict

Russia-Ukraine War effects on the Senkaku Islands conflict


17 | 01 | 2024


The conflict has led to a review of risk assessment in East Asia and to an increase in building capabilities of self-defense

En la imagen

Japanese Coast Guard vessels interdict a Chinese fishing vessel near the Senkaku Islands [JCG]

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine War has not only shaken world order, but it has also heightened political tensions in East Asia, where China’s assertiveness is looked with more suspicious eyes. After Russia has invaded and retained what the Kremlin argues it is part of the Russian nation, China could arguably do the same in the East and South China Sea. Japan and China dispute the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the Japanese government is taken steps to strengthen its military capabilities.

The Senkaku Islands (Japanese name), also known as the Pinnacle/Diaoyu Islands are a group of eight uninhabited islands in the East China Sea between Taiwan and the Japanese archipelago of Okinawa. The United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East –established to aid in post-war economic reconstruction– discovered in 1968 what may be the world's largest hydrocarbon reserves in the seabed of these islands, sparking the start of the conflict.

Granting sovereignty over the islands would grant the controlling entity the exclusive right to develop an Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nautical miles encircling the islands, enabling the extraction and utilization of the potential hydrocarbon resources within this maritime domain. The Senkaku Islands are located 190 nautical miles away from Okinawa’s closest coast, 200 nautical miles away from China’s east coast, and 120 nautical miles away from Taiwan’s coast.

On the one hand, Beijing claims that the Senkaku Islands had been under Chinese rule at the very least since 1534 when the Diaoyu Islands were mentioned as part of China, during the Ming and Qing periods. Chinese fishermen would frequent the waters around the Senkaku Islands back then. At that time, the Diaoyu Islands were placed under Taiwanese jurisdiction. The Diaoyu Islands were also mentioned as Chinese by foreigners such as the British Royal Navy in 1877.

However, on the other hand, Japan would declare the land as terra nullius (i.e. not showing any indications of being governed by a state and uninhabited). These islands would be annexed to Japan in 1895 as part of the Okinawa prefecture. After its incorporation into Japan, several Japanese families moved to the islands to exploit the bonito fish business.

After Japan’s loss in WW2, the US gained control over the Ryukyu islands, including Okinawa and therefore the Senkaku Islands. Japan also signed a new Constitution, containing the unique Article 9, also known as the Pacifist Clause, where Japan renounced its right to wage war and to have its military, only being able to possess Self-Defense Forces.

The Chinese and Taiwanese base their argument on the return of the administration of the Okinawa archipelago in 1972 by the United States, where they claim that given that the Senkaku Islands had been conquered by Japan during their imperial rule, it had to be given back to its original owner, China.

Despite their longstanding political differences, China and Taiwan share a common position on the Senkaku Islands dispute. However, Taiwan’s position is especially complicated by the historical circumstance that the ROC was forced to withdraw to the island of Formosa (Taiwan) in 1949, and the mainland’s policy has been strictly regarded ever since as ‘One China’. This, coupled with Taiwan’s current de facto status quo, relegates Taiwan to a limited agent within the geopolitical sphere, constrained to reaching agreements with China in view of their joint position.

Impact of the Russia-Ukraine War

On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in a full-scale operation. The ongoing conflict has persisted for over 700 days, approaching to an estimated 200,000 fatalities. The invasion of Ukraine has left a devastating impact on the rest of the world. This conflict has tremendously shaken the world order.

The war is considered by many as one of the last colonial wars, between colonialist Russia and its former colony Ukraine. The war has awakened the international community into a state of heightened political engagement, a phenomenon rooted in the enduring East-West geopolitical divide that has been exacerbated by the deteriorating US-China relationship.

In East Asia, in light of the deepening China-Russia partnership and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, East Asian states, including Japan, are compelled to reevaluate China’s geopolitical aspirations and risk assessment frameworks critically. Given that the sovereignty of an aspiring Western state has been violated, it is worth considering whether this could happen to a Western-oriented country such as Japan. Also, a further reason to be alert is the 7.2% nominal increase in China’s defense budget from 2022 to 2023.

Russia, on the other hand, would be highly interested in an escalation of tensions in the Indo-Pacific, such as in the case of the Senkaku Islands or the case of Taiwan, for the purpose of reshaping the US’ strategic priorities by benefiting from a potential decrease in resources allocated to Ukraine.

The Ukraine war has forced Japan to make a gradual increase of investments in upgrading military capabilities, as China’s provocations in the last years have also intensified and given the deepening Sino-Russian partnership. Given both of these issues, Japan proposed in December 2022 a five-year plan in order to increase defense spending to reach 2% of its GDP. Despite this decision creating problems with the state budget, public opinion was generally positive about the news. Governments have used the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as justification for accelerating their armaments buildup. Furthermore, Japan seeks to expand security cooperation with the US, and, additionally, foster a more robust partnership with South Korea and the Philippines.

What Russia’s attack on Ukraine demonstrated was that smaller nations can be more optimistic about defending themselves if they are prepared and remain determined, which could be compared to China’s role as the powerhouse and Japan’s role as the smaller nation in the case of the Senkaku Islands conflict. This reasoning infers that the world is currently emerging into a period of potential defensive advantage.

Given what was seen in Ukraine and the increasing tensions in East Asia, the United States is expected to place a heightened emphasis on the self-defense capabilities of its key allies in the Indo-Pacific region. In particular Japan, a key ally in the Indo-Pacific region.

Awareness of the risk

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine War has caused the Senkaku Islands to attract more attention, bringing the Senkaku Islands conflict into stark relief. Forcing Japan to strengthen its military capabilities and tighten its security cooperation with the United States in response to the rising tensions in East Asia and the possibility of Chinese aggression. These steps show how vulnerable Japan is becoming and how determined it is to protect its territorial integrity.

Asian States, including Japan, have been made aware of the conflict of the possibility of a neighborly attack. The violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty has underscored the risks of appeasement and non-resistance. This has led to a review of risk assessment frameworks and an increase in the significance of self-defense.

China is likely attentive to the international response to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, which could shape China’s future choices in similar territorial conflicts, including the Senkaku Islands dispute. The international’s community reaction, especially Western Countries, could serve as a barometer to measure possible answers to its actions.