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The Contested Sovereignty of Senkaku Islands: Developments Amidst COVID19

The dispute over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea has been an unceasing conflict. In the latest development, Japan criticised Beijing for relentlessly attempting to undermine Tokyo's administration of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, even during the pandemic. The issue came to light after the Ishigaki City Council in Okinawa approved a Bill that strengthened Japan's control over the uninhabited island group of Senkakus. The bill, which is also set to change the name of Senkakus, is purportedly to improve the efficiency of administrative work and not to claim ownership. Though the Senkakus, which China calls the Diaoyus, have been administered by Japan since 1972, their sovereignty has remained somewhat disputed.

China has been attempting to solidify its claim over the Diaoyu Islands since the fourteenth century. History has witnessed Japan annexing the islands in 1895, after its victory in the Sino-Japanese War. After the Second World War, the islands were under American administration until 1972, when they were returned to the control of Japan, after ratifying the Okinawa Reversion Treaty. Following official protests against the transfer in 1972, both China and Taiwan both declared ownership of the islands. Taiwan has reiterated, after Japan’s latest move, that the islands are part of Taiwanese territory, saying it would “not be conducive to regional peace and stability".

The Senkakus matter because they are close to significant shipping lanes, offer rich fishing grounds and lie near potential oil and gas reserves. They are also in a strategically significant position, now more than ever amid rising competition between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region. The US has long declined to take a position on the islands’ sovereignty; however, Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have both declared that the Senkakus fall under the US-Japan security alliance.

After rich oil reserves were found in the area surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, claims were made by both China and Taiwan to the islets that were rejected by Japan, leaving the territorial conflict unresolved. Several incidents, around the 2000s, brought the Senkaku/Diaoyu conflict back to public attention. Between 2006 and 2011, several activist groups from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong arrived at the islands to proclaim Chinese sovereignty only to be expelled by the Japanese navy. The events have also led to economic and social repercussions with the anti-Japanese protests in several Chinese cities, in 2012, that even turned violent (Heilmann, 2016). Japanese businesses in China were also attacked and protesters called for a boycott of Japanese goods. Additionally, Japanese-Chinese relations deteriorated drastically when further naval standoffs near the disputed islands occurred, leading to fears over military conflict.

The disputes between China and Japan have become increasingly contentious and the two have even started displaying their military muscle. The Defence Force of Japan has been flying above the East China Sea continually to monitor Chinese military aircraft moves in the area. Japan has even begun scrambling fighter jets against all Chinese military aircraft taking off from an airbase in Fujian Province.

The dispute in Senkakus is not the sole territorial dispute that China is currently involved in. At a time when international coordination is required to contain the virus, China has been a participant in several border disputes over contested territory. Even with India, the conflict over the Galwan region was initiated during the same period, at the pinnacle of the Covid-19 crisis. Across the sea, Beijing has inherited territorial disputes from its predecessors with all six of its island neighbours, including Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Historically, China has not been the most cooperative neighbour despite its history of investing and forming trade relations with most of its neighbours. Many of these costly investments, made in other countries, are allegedly to gain a trade deficit, causing the other country to eventually be indebted to China.

Imperial China, relying on commercial and military strength, claimed extensive territorial sovereignty, both on land and at sea. China’s attainment of marine expertise, before its neighbouring nations, allowed it to discover and claim territory over several islands in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. However, a change of governance led to China’s decline in the marine strength and allowed some neighbouring countries to assert control over disputed territories. An aspect common to all of its territorial or maritime conflicts has been China’s inclination to produce historical evidence proving that it was the first nation that discovered, navigated, and governed the disputed territory centuries ago.

Although the use of force is prohibited under the Charter of the United Nations, for the settlement of territorial disputes, there has nevertheless been a lack of focused research on other means of settling territorial disputes. Maritime delimitation disputes are particularly untouched by any research to articulate alternate means of resolving disputes. Countries claiming sovereignty have shown an inclination to seek international arbitration or judicial settlements. However, China has ruled out its willingness to submit the issues to any third party and prefers bilateral negotiation in territorial disputes.

Contrary to popular belief, China does have a pattern of cooperation, that has been described as regime insecurity. Depending on its regime security concerns, China shows the willingness to either concede or use force in territorial matters in its territorial disputes. The pattern suggests that if the land at issue is not essential for defensive purposes, China is likely to make compromises in territorial settlements for political reasons, particularly for gaining diplomatic support when facing domestic pressure.

From fishing boats to coastal patrols and naval ships, thousands of vessels commute the East and the South China Sea waters. Increased use of the contested waters by China and its neighbours heighten the risk of an armed conflict, which even the US could be drawn into through its military commitments to allies Japan and the Philippines. Policy experts believe that a crisis management system for the region is crucial with certain methods of crisis management having been analysed as being the best suited for China’s maritime disputes like International Arbitration, Military-to-Military Communication and Resource Sharing. For China’s dispute in the South China Sea, the formulation of a multilateral framework aiming toward greater cooperation and resource sharing might assist in the resolution of conflicts with the ASEAN nations.

Regime insecurity best explains China’s inclination to compromise, if at all, and even its delay in disputes. Internal threats to regime security have led to the willingness of Chinese leaders to cooperate—the revolt in Tibet, the instability following the Great Leap Forward, the legitimacy crisis after the Tiananmen upheaval, and separatist violence in Xinjiang. With the upheaval of the economy, post-pandemic, in China and the disinvestment by several foreign enterprises in China, an internal threat might be anticipated, possibly catalysing China into any kind of cooperation. While the measures taken by China in the East China Sea, after Japan’s announcement of the name change portray the contrary, a reminder of China’s history of cooperation, can be perceived as a consolation.


  1. Kohama, Shoko, ‘Territorial acquisition, commitment, and recurrent war’, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific (2019), vol. 19, Issue 2, pp. 269–295,

  2. Wei, Yuwa, ‘China and its Neighbours: Exasperating Territorial Disputes’, Willamette Journal of International Law and Dispute Resolution (2014), vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 105-136.

  3. Fravel, M. Taylor, “Regime Insecurity and International Cooperation: Explaining China's Compromises in Territorial Disputes.” Quarterly Journal: International Security, vol. 30. no. 2. (Fall 2005): pp. 46-83.

  4. Cotillon, Hannah, “Territorial disputes and Nationalism: A Comparative Case study of China and Vietnam”, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs (2017), vol. 1 (36) pp. 51-88. ISSN 1868-1034

  5. Heilmann, Kilian, ‘Does Political Conflict Hurt Trade? Evidence from Consumer Boycotts’, Journal of International Economics 99: 179-91 (2016).


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