What's the row about?

The row is about five rocky islets in the East China Sea - inhabited only by overbreeding goats, an endangered species of moles and encircled by pods of man-eating sharks. Measuring no more than 7 square km, the islands are at the heart of a simmering bilateral dispute between Japan and China and are regarded as among the world’s most dangerous flash points today.

The islands, at no time inhabited by human beings, are administered by Japan but claimed by China.

Japan calls them the Senkaku Islands. It says they were unclaimed territory when it annexed them in 1895.

Not so, says China which calls them the Diaoyus. The islands have been part of its territory since the ancient times, it says.

Taiwan is also a claimant to the islands that it calls Diaoyutai. Once in a while, it reminds China and Japan of its stake.

What is undisputed is that the row over their ownership has been steadily escalating since 2012.

At one level, the fight is about resources. The island not only lie on important shipping routes and offer rich fishing grounds but are also thought to be surrounded by vast deposits of oil and natural gas reserves. They are of obvious value to both China and Japan, which are heavily dependent on fossil fuel imports.

At another level, it is about national politics. China's aggressive stance on the dispute is explained by some analysts as a consequence of President Xi Jinping's need to stamp his authority over the country he took over in late 2012. Japan's conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a vocal nationalist who wants to. For both, islands tug at national pride.

At yet another level, it is about geostrategy. The dispute over the islands, that lie smack in the middle of Japan and China, is part of the broader tectonic shift as a richer and more powerful China competes with the United States for influence in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. Successfully claiming the islands and other disputed areas in the region would allow Beijing unimpeded strategic breakout beyond the so-called constraints of the First Island Chain. This is an imaginary line stretching from north-east China, through Japan and the Ryukyu archipelago, the Philippines and down to the Strait of Malacca.

What exactly does history say?

It depends on whom you ask.

Japan says that when it erected a sovereignty marker and incorporated the islands into its territory in 1895, after it defeated China in a brief war, they were unclaimed and uninhabited.

China contests that and says the islands were administered by the province of Taiwan.

After the Sino-Japanese war, Taiwan was ceded to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. The Treaty does not mention Senkaku/Diaoyus but China says they were included in the pact.

After the Second World War ended, Japan renounced claims to a number of territories including Taiwan, under the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951. The Senkakus then came under US trusteeship.

In 1971, the islands were returned to Japan by the US, under the Okinawa reversion deal.

Tokyo says China raised no objections to the San Francisco deal and only began pressing its claims after oil and gas were discovered in areas near the islands.

China holds that the islands should have been given up when Japan renounced Taiwan in 1951. It says Taiwan's then leader Chiang Ka-Shek was dependent on the US for support so he did not raise any objections, even in 1971 when the control of Senkakus was transferred from the US to Japan. In the late 1970s, in a spirit of pragmatism, China and Japan agreed effectively to shelve the dispute and concentrate on other areas of their bilateral relationship.

So why did the dispute flare up?

The trigger was a sale in 2012, when Japan “nationalised” the islands by buying them from their private owner.

From China’s point of view, Japan upset the status quo.

Japan says it took the decision to foil an attempt by an ultra-nationalist Japanese politician, the then governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara, to buy and develop the islands.

From then on, there has been no calm.

China has been aggressively asserting its ownership. It has regularised patrols in waters off the islands, announced base points around them and, most provocatively, included the islands in its air defence identification zone. Its military journals have described the islands as part of a chain hemming China in.

Tokyo does not acknowledge there is any dispute over ownership in the first place and denies there was ever a deal to shelve the dispute in the 1970s. Its official position is that China has recognised Japan’s sovereignty since 1895 when Tokyo first incorporated the islands into its territory. In military drills with the US, it has rehearsed 'retaking' the islands captured by 'hostile' forces. As things stand, it remains unclear how Tokyo will eventually respond to the near daily intrusions around the islands by Chinese ships and aircraft.

A question mark remains over China’s behaviour as it becomes more powerful and beefs up its military. In February 2014, Mr Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in Congressional testimony noted there had been “an unprecedented spike in risky activity” by Chinese maritime agencies. Some analysts Will China try to occupy the territory of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in some way, which could potentially trigger armed conflict between China and Japan and potentially the United States?

What is the US role?

The US, which has stressed its role as a Pacific power, says it takes no sides in this dispute yet it has repeatedly assured Japan that its nuclear security umbrella does cover the islands.

Analysts have noted that Washington could work harder at making sure that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe refrains from nationalist posturing and provocative moves like visiting the Yasukuni shrine which is associated with Japanese militarism.

How volatile is the situation?

As the row escalated in 2012, well-known Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami struck a note of caution, comparing rash actions to getting drunk on cheap sake.

"Drinking just a small cup of this cheap sake sends blood rushing to the head. People’s voices get louder and those actions become violent. But after making a noisy fuss about it, when the dawn breaks all that will be left is a bad headache,” he wrote in an essay that was published on the front page of Asahi Shimbum. 

Singapore Foreign Minister K Shanmugam noted the possibility of a small accidental or foolhardy skirmish between triggering a bigger conflict as tensions ripple across the East China Sea, at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum in November 2013.

Diplomacy is at a standstill. Shrill words have been exchanged.

At the World Economic Forum in January 2014, a member of the Chinese delegation called Japanese Prime Minister a "troublemaker". Mr Abe, in turn, said the Japan-China bilateral relationship was like that between Germany and Britain at the cusp of World War I. The ambassadors of the two countries to Britain traded insults, each likening the other to Lord Voldemort, the villain from the Harry Potter fantasy series.

Alarmingly, there are no military-to-military contacts between Beijing and Tokyo. No hotline exists to douse tensions from accidents or emergencies. And worst of all, there are no signs that Mr Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping intend to open serious negotiations over the islands.

Suggestions that the dispute be referred to the International Court of Justice - made, for instance, by Singapore's Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh - have fallen on deaf ears.

There seems little effort at promoting understanding of each other's perspectives. China is not trying to see the world from Japan’s eyes, and vice versa. The mistrust spans public opinion. A Pew Research poll in February 2014 showed that just 6 per cent of Chinese had a favourable view of Japan, and only 5 per cent of Japanese viewed China favourably.

Still, experts it is unlikely a war will break out.

China and Japan, the world's second- and third-largest economies, have much invested in each other. Japan has 23,000 companies operating in China. Some 10 million Chinese workers work for these Japanese companies. Japan sees China as a vast market, and part of efforts to revive its own economy, and Chinese provinces values Japanese investment, points out analyst Ian Bremmer.

Both sides are aware that the other does not really want and cannot afford a war - a situation that can both temper or tempt adventures.

bhagya@sph.com.sg