An activist holds the Japanese flag before a group placed the country's flag on a disputed island, part of a group known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.
Credit: Antoine Bouthier

HONG KONG – If you’re confused why a jumble of uninhabitable rocks in the East China Sea has inflamed such passions in Japan and China (see: mobs smashing Japanese-brand cars in Chengdu, joint US-Japan military drills), you’re not alone.

The dispute over the Japanese-controlled islands — called Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyu in China — is thorny, complicated, and seemingly irreconcilable.

But never fear. GlobalPost will explain what’s at stake, how it could be resolved, and why it's unlikely to be anytime soon.

Senkaku, Diaoyu — what’s the correct name?

Obviously, that’s part of the dispute. The same nomenclature dilemma crops up in the South China Sea, where just about every littoral country has disputes with China and one another.

In this case, Japan has controlled the islands on and off since 1895, and has administered the islands continuously since the 1970s, so you could argue their proper name is Senkaku. On the other hand, China claims that the islands historically lay in China’s control, and were known as Diaoyu before they ever had a Japanese name.

On balance, maritime expert Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, comes down on the side of calling them Senkaku. “You should call it that because the Japanese have possession of it,” he says.

If submitted to international arbitration, who would be likely to prevail?

This is almost certain never to happen, but if it did, some experts say Japan would stand slightly better — though this is not the same as saying who is right or wrong.

According to Stephen Robert Nagy, a professor in the department of Japanese Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Japan’s advantage is that its case is better rooted in the language and norms of international law. “Based on the law of the seas and exclusive economic zone, Japan has a much stronger claim,” he says.

Thayer explains that international courts typically favor countries that have continually occupied and administered a disputed territory. In this view, he says, Japan’s case is stronger.

Of course, that does not mean China’s claim is not also compelling. It’s simply very different. Its argument is based on a view of China not simply as a nation-state with certain fixed borders, but a civilization with a historic claim to territory.

“China has a civilizational approach to territorial issues — where did Chinese civilization start and end,” says Nagy. “When they look at Senkaku islands, they see it as bounded by Chinese civilization. [Japan and China] clash because they are both right.”

More from GlobalPost: Why are citizens from Japan and China fighting over East China Sea islands?

Why do they care so much about the islands?

Riots, military drills, saber-rattling — sure, it’s disputed territory, but why all the fuss?

Victor Teo, professor of Asia-Pacific international relations at the University of Hong Kong, says they matter for a few reasons: “For their intrinsic worth as sovereign territory; for the sea-lanes they straddle; for what lies beneath the seabed and even for the way they might affect other issues.”

Energy resources are no small motive. China and Japan both desperately need oil, and there may be plenty of it in waters adjoining the Diaoyu. Both countries also want control of nearby fisheries.

But more important than material things is the political value of the islands. They possess symbolic value for nationalists in both countries, and can be used by politicians to distract from domestic problems.

The flip side of that is a risk. Any government seen to be backing down would face a backlash, and would have a weaker hand in other territorial tiffs. (Japan is also tussling with Korea and Russia over several islands.) For China, giving up Diaoyu could also threaten its hold over more unstable regions, says Nagy.

“In China, losing this territory has big implications. If Senkaku can be part of Japan, what about Taiwan, or Tibet? They all have issues with the mainland government, and for the government losing these islands is a problem for showing strength. This is one big reason they are so attached to them.”

How do the Americans fit in?

Awkwardly. Japan is a treaty ally, and the US has said it views Senkaku/Daioyu as part of Japan.

As a result, Nagy says it's actually in Japan's interest to keep the dispute going, as it ensures America stays involved. This also means Japan won't have to get in an arms race with China.

Should we be worried that the level of nationalism we're seeing in China?

Expert consensus says: no, at least not yet. Official Chinese media already discourage further protests against Japan, and this is hardly the first flare-up over the Diaoyu.

In fact, Teo says that the last major protests over the islands — in 1996-97 — were hardly different from today's.

“Those protests were quite similar in the sense they involved Hong Kong and Taiwan activists, the Japanese right-wing groups, and mainland protesters,” he says. “But they tend to fizzle out after a while.”

How could this dispute be resolved? How likely is that to happen?

Some territorial disputes are solved by simply agreeing to table the question of sovereignty, and cooperating in order to share the resources drawn from it. But that is very unlikely to happen here.

“Sovereignty disputes are irresolvable, it’s crazy politics,” says Thayer. “Nobody ever wants to give up anything.” 

More from GlobalPost: Senkaku islands spark territory dispute between China and Japan

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