BEIJING—One of the hottest items in bookstores across China is a map for a place that is closed to visitors, home only to animals such as goats and crabs, and the reason China’s relations with Japan are at their lowest point in years.
China calls them the Diaoyus; Japan, the Senkakus. The new map shows a satellite image of a kidney-shaped main island with splotches of green and a list of 70 affiliated “islands” that are really half-submerged rocks.
China hastily published the map to help maintain public outrage over the Japanese government’s purchase of some of the islands from their private Japanese owners. Beijing also has engaged in another type of mapmaking that may end up escalating the conflict.
It has drawn new territorial markers, or baselines, around the islands and submitted them to the United Nations. That could lead to a more serious attempt to claim the islands, and broad swaths of valuable ocean around them.
“The status quo has been broken in the last month by Japan’s purchase and China’s publishing of the baselines,” said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt of the International Crisis Group. She said friction is likely to reach its worst level since the 1980s when China and Japan tacitly agreed to set aside the dispute in pursuit of better overall relations.
Beijing has been firm rhetorically. On Saturday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the country must safeguard its territorial integrity at a reception celebrating the upcoming National Day.
State television on Saturday reported that the country’s navy and air forces conducted joint military exercises with live fire targeting a small island in the East China Sea.
More than lines on paper are at stake. By submitting the baselines to the UN, China is spelling out its claim to the waters, the fish in them and the oil, gas and other minerals beneath them. Up until now, China has sought to jointly exploit resources with Japan through negotiation.
Japan says it bought to islands to maintain stability, noting that the nationalist governor of Tokyo had been pushing a more radical plan to not only buy the islands but develop them. China, however, was outraged, and considered Japan’s move a violation of their earlier agreements.
The dispute has brought nationalism and patriotism to the fore, and sparked sometimes-violent protests in China targeting Japanese businesses, restaurants and cars. A Chinese man driving a Toyota Corolla was beaten unconscious by a mob in the tourist city of Xi’an and left partially paralyzed, according to state media. Chinese and Japanese coast guard vessels have been facing off in the contested waters.
The dispute is testing perhaps the most important economic relationship in Asia, between the world’s second- and third-largest economies.
Japan has claimed the islands since 1895. The US took jurisdiction after World War II and turned them over to Japan in 1972. China says they have been part of its territory since ancient times, and that it opposed and never acknowledged the deal between Japan and the United States. Taiwan also claims them.
The islands make a strange setting for a potential conflict zone. The largest is less than four square kilometers. It is home to a growing population of goats—the offspring of a pair brought there by right-wing Japanese activists in 1977—as well as moles, crabs, Okinawan ants, albatross and lizards, and plants including azalea.
The islands themselves are remote, “intrinsically worthless features” that were largely forgotten for decades, said Clive Schofield of the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security at the University of Wollongong.
“The reason why there is uncertainty over the ownership, sovereignty is because they have essentially been ignored over a large period of time,” Schofield said.
A UN survey in the 1970s that said oil and gas may lie beneath the surrounding waters changed that. Then, the Law of the Sea Convention introduced the idea of 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones, or EEZs, which give coastal countries sole exploitation rights over all natural resources contained within.
China’s new baselines are a prelude to defining that exclusive zone. It has drawn straight lines around the main group of islands and a separate set around isolated Chiwei Island, some 50 nautical miles to the east.
It also plans to submit a document outlining the outer limits of its sea bed—those that stretch beyond 200 nautical miles from land—in the East China Sea to a UN commission. The move is a way for China to underscore its claim, but has little real impact. The commission, which comprises geological experts, evaluates the markers on technical grounds but has no authority to resolve overlapping claims.
“That puts a line in the sand, but it doesn’t have any legal impact,” said Ian Townsend Gault, director of the Centre for Asian Legal Studies at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
He doubts whether the islands would be capable of generating a 200-nautical-mile EEZ because they are too insignificant—too small and without a population.
“They are not important in the economic sense, no matter how beautiful they look on postcards,” he said.
Legal questions aside, China sees the waters within its baselines as its internal waters under Beijing’s administration.
That raises the risk of a confrontation in the clear waters around the disputed islands between Japanese coast guard vessels and Chinese fishing boats and law enforcement vessels, and even Taiwanese vessels—all ostensibly with orders to patrol the area.
Already there has been sparring the past two weeks, with Chinese maritime surveillance vessels entering waters Japan claims, and the Japanese coast guard firing a water cannon at Taiwanese boats approaching the islands.
The parties could legally resolve their dispute if they submit it to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany, or their own court.
“Both would be equally terrified of losing on flimsy grounds,” said Townsend Gault. “They have snookered each other legally and diplomatically speaking. They have driven each other into a corner. We need some third party to say can you put this to bed so we don’t have this enormous disruption in your bilateral relations whereby people are smashing up Toyota dealerships.”