China maintains that the Diaoyu Islands (or Diaoyudao) have been a part of its sovereign territory since the Ming Dynasty in the sixteenth century. The territory is controlled and claimed by Japan (which refers to the islands as the Senkakus) and Taiwan (Diaoyutai). While Beijing acknowledges that the Diaoyu Islands were ceded to Japan in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, it contends that control was returned to China at the end of World War II.
China argues that it has controlled the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when it erected coastal defenses to guard against invasion by Japanese pirates along its southern coast. At the conclusion of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), China signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki, by which it ceded Taiwan and islands affiliated with it, including the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, to Japan. However, China argues that the Cairo Declaration (1943) and the Potsdam Declaration (1945) nullified this treaty, and so the islands should have reverted back to China at the conclusion of World War II. China therefore regards the U.S. transfer of administrative control over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands to Japan in 1972 as illegal and invalid and continues to claim sovereignty over the islands.
“The Diaoyu Islands are an inalienable part of China’s territory, and the Chinese government and its people will absolutely make no concession on issues concerning its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
– Premier Wen Jiabao, 2012
“The Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands have been China’s sacred territory since ancient times. This is supported by historical facts and jurisprudential evidence.”
– Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 2012
“Diaoyu Dao and its affiliated islands have been an integral part of China’s territory since ancient times. China has indisputable historical and legal evidence in this regard.”
– Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi, 2012
“Diaoyu Dao and its affiliated islands are an inseparable part of the Chinese territory. Diaoyu Dao is China’s inherent territory in all historical, geographical and legal terms, and China enjoys indisputable sovereignty over Diaoyu Dao.”
– State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, 2012
“Diaoyu Dao has been China’s inherent territory since ancient times. Numerous documents and historical evidence attest to the fact that Diaoyu Dao and its affiliated islands were first discovered, named and exploited by the Chinese people. Diaoyu Dao has been part of China’s territory since the early years of the Ming Dynasty. Chinese fishermen have exploited the islands and their adjacent waters for generations.”
– State Oceanic Administration of the People’s Republic of China, 2012
“China’s Peaceful Development, the white paper released by China’s State Council Information Office in September 2011, made it clear that China firmly safeguards its core national interests, including national sovereignty, national security and territorial integrity. The Diaoyu Islands issue concerns China’s territorial sovereignty.”
– Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Hua Chunying, 2013
“No matter what others say or do, the fact that the Diaoyu Islands belong to China can not be changed.”
– Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Hong Lei, 2015
December 1971: China made its first official claim to sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Taiwan had previously made a separate claim in June, 1971.
September 1972: Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka raised the issue of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands during talks with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. Zhou proposed the shelving of discussions on the matter.
August 1978: Chinese vice premier Deng Xiaoping again proposed shelving discussions about the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands during talks with Japanese foreign minister Sunao Sonoda.
January 2003: The Japanese government leased three of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands from their private owner. China made a formal protest to the Japanese ambassador to Beijing, while both China and Taiwan declared the contract invalid.
June 2008: China and Japan agreed to jointly develop disputed natural gas fields near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. To date, however, the agreement remains unimplemented.
December 2008: Two Chinese government vessels entered waters near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The Japan Coast Guard demanded they leave, while the Japanese government lodged diplomatic protests.
September-November 2010: The Japanese government detained the crew of a Chinese fishing trawler after it rammed two Japan Coast Guard vessels near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The Japanese government subsequently released the crew but charged the captain. Diplomatic tensions remained high, and in retaliation the Chinese government halted all rare earth exports to Japan on September 21, resuming them on November 19.
2011: The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) scrambled fighters 156 times in response to Chinese aircraft in the East China Sea.
March-November 2012: Chinese ships made 47 recorded incursions into waters around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.
March 2012: Japan announced the naming of 39 islands, including the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. China responded by giving its own names to 71 islands, including the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.
April 2012: Governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara announced his intention to buy three of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands from their private owner, drawing criticism from the Chinese government and media.
April-December 2012: The JASDF scrambled fighters 160 times in response to Chinese aircraft in the East China Sea.
July 2012: Three Chinese patrol boats approached the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The Japan Coast Guard demanded that they leave Japanese territorial waters, while the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs lodged formal diplomatic protests.
September 2012: The government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda purchased three of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands from their private owner. The move was intended to prevent a similar bid by Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara but drew condemnation from the Chinese government.
September 2012: China issued a white paper outlining its sovereignty claims to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in response to Japan’s nationalization of three of the islands.
December 2012: A Chinese government plane entered airspace over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, prompting Japan to scramble eight F-15 fighter jets.
February 2013: Japan accused a Chinese navy vessel of putting a radar lock on a Japanese warship near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. China denied the accusation.
May 2013: Chinese marine surveillance ships monitored and obtained evidence before expelling boats manned by Japanese activists from waters near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.
November 2013: China declared the establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, prompting protests from Japan, South Korea, and the United States.
August 2014: Japan gave names to five islands that are part of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. China responded by claiming the disputed islands as part of Chinese territory.
January 2015: IHS Jane’s released satellite imagery showing that China is building a military base on islands 300 kilometers away from the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.
March 2015: China Coast Guard vessels conducted a patrol in waters surrounding the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.
The area around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is known to have oil and natural gas deposits. Although mostly undeveloped, these resources have served as an underlying factor in continuing disputes among China, Japan, and Taiwan. In 1972, Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka suggested to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai that their countries jointly develop oil resources around the island, but Zhou suggested that discussions be shelved. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping made the same suggestion to Zenko Suzuki, but further discussions were again shelved. In 2008, Japan and China agreed to jointly explore and develop the disputed natural gas fields Chunxiao and Longjing (known in Japan as Shirakaba and Asunaro). However, the two sides never implemented the agreement.
China’s claims in the South China Sea include claims to territorial sovereignty over island groups as well as claims to maritime jurisdiction. As with the claim made by Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China claims sovereignty over the Spratly Islands (Nansha), Paracel Islands (Xisha), and Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha). Vietnam also claims the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands, while Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei claim some of the Spratly Islands. China has controlled part of the Paracels since the 1950s and the entire Paracel Islands archipelago since 1974, and also currently occupies seven reefs in the Spratly Islands.
The scope and basis for China’s claims to maritime jurisdiction remain unclear. China claims jurisdiction over the “adjacent waters” of the land features it claims in the South China Sea, but has not specified whether these waters constitute an Exclusive Economic Zone under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), or even which specific land features serve as the basis for jurisdiction over adjacent waters. Ambiguity also surrounds the “nine-dashed line,” which has appeared on PRC maps since the early 1950s. The PRC government has never defined what the line represents, either in terms of sovereignty claims or maritime jurisdictional claims. Although Chinese foreign ministry officials have said that China does not claim the entire South China Sea, they have also made statements that suggest China may pursue a claim to historic rights within the waters enclosed by the line. For example, one MFA spokesperson recently referred to the southern part of the South China Sea as “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.” An MFA statement has referred to “relevant rights in the South China Sea formed in the long historical course.” These claims to maritime jurisdiction overlap with the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia.
China derives its claim to sovereignty over the islands and atolls of the South China Sea on the basis of discovery and long-standing usage dating back over 2,000 years. Its modern-day international law claim was re-established during the early years of the 20th century. The culmination of that effort was the issuance of the Location Map of the South China Sea Islands in December 1947 which delineated the scope of territories and water in the region.
In May 2009, the Chinese Government formally introduced the nine-dash-line through two Notes Verbales to the UN Secretary General. The Notes contained China’s objections to the claims for an extended continental shelf filed by Vietnam and Malaysia. The other littoral states of the South China Sea have formally expressed their opposition to the nine-dash line as a basis for claiming maritime rights per the terms of UNCLOS. The U-shaped nine-dash-line extends China’s maritime jurisdiction far beyond the 12-nm territorial seas limit and, in places, beyond the maximum bounds of a 200 EEZ. Some critics argue that China, having ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1996, must surrender historical maritime claims in favor of maritime zones permitted under the convention. China, on the other hand, claims that these rights derive from the application of general international law, are preserved in the Preamble of UNCLOS, and are compatible with its purposes.
“The concept of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” has the following four elements: 1. The sovereignty of the territories concerned belongs to China. 2. When conditions are not ripe to bring about a thorough solution to territorial dispute, discussion on the issue of sovereignty may be postponed so that the dispute is set aside. To set aside dispute does not mean giving up sovereignty. It is just to leave the dispute aside for the time being. 3. The territories under dispute may be developed in a joint way. 4. The purpose of joint development is to enhance mutual understanding through cooperation and create conditions for the eventual resolution of territorial ownership.”
– Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC, 2000 (in explaining Deng Xiaoping’s comment “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development”)
“Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as respect for countries’ right to independently choose their own social systems and paths of development, are not only important principles enshrined in the UN Charter, but have increasingly become guiding principles for countries with differing social systems and development levels to establish and develop their relations.”
– President Hu Jintao, 2005
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof (see attached map). The above position is consistently held by the Chinese government, and is widely known by the international community.”
– Note Verbale to the UN, the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China, 2009
“We are firm in our resolve to uphold China’s sovereignty, security and development interests and will never yield to any outside pressure.”
– President Hu Jintao, 2012
“No foreign country should expect us to make a deal on our core interests and hope we will swallow the bitter pill that will damage our sovereignty, security and development interests.”
– President Xi Jinping, January 2013
“What we pursue is the well-being of both the Chinese people and the people of all other countries. We should firmly uphold China’s territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests and national unity, and properly handle territorial and island disputes.”
– President Xi Jinping, November 2014
“[I]slands in the South China Sea have been China’s territory since ancient times, and the Chinese government must take responsibility to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and legitimate maritime interests.”
1950: PLA occupies Woody Island in the Amphitrite Group of the Paracel Islands.
August 1951: In a statement during the Peace Treaty Negotiations in Japan, Premier Zhou Enlai affirms the PRC’s claims to sovereignty over the Paracel Island, Spratly Islands and Macclesfield Bank.
August 1958: In a declaration on the breadth of its territorial sea, the PRC affirms its claims to sovereignty over the Paracel Island, Spratly Islands and Macclesfield Bank.
March 1959: China establishes an administrative office for the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and Macclesfield Bank in Guangong Province, referred to as “Sansha” or “three sands.”
March 1960: The PLAN Navy begins regular patrols in the Paracel Islands.
1974: Chinese and Vietnamese forces clashed over the Crescent Group in the western portion of the Paracel Island, with casualties on both sides. Vietnamese forces were defeated, allowing China to establish full control over the Paracel Islands.
January 1988: China occupies Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. By the end of March 1988, China occuppied six land features in the Spratly (Fiery Cross, Cuarteron, Johnson South, Gaven, Hughes and Subi reefs).
March 1988: The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) clashed with the Vietnamese Navy near Johnson South Reef in the Spratlys in which 64 Vietnamese were killed. China gained control of the reef after the clash.
July 1990: China completes construction of an airfield on Woody Island in the Paracels.
February 1992: China issues a Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, which affirms China’s claims to sovereignty over the Paracel Island, Spratly Islands and Macclesfield Bank.
May 1992: The China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) signs an agreement with Crestone, an American firm, to explore for hydrocarbons in the southwestern portion of the South China Sea that overlaps with Vietnam’s offshore exploration blocks.
Late 1994: China occupies Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.
May 1996: China publishes straight baselines around the entire Parcel Island archipelago.
1999: China initiates a fishing ban during the summer months in the northern portion of the South China Sea, which has occurred every year since.
2005: The People’s Liberation Army Navy begins regular patrols of the South China Sea
2006: The China Marine Surveillance force, now part of the Chinese Coast Guard, initiates regular patrols in the South China Sea.
2006: China objected to decision of awarding blocks 127 and 128, located off Vietnam’s central coast, to India’s state-owned ONGC in May 2006.
2007: China began objecting to fishing boats from other claimants in the SCS and created Sansha city in Hainan province to increase Chinese control over disputed waters. It also objected to a British Petroleum (BP) led gas exploration and development off southern Vietnam (block 5.2). Hanoi denied Beijing’s claim, but BP suspended its exploration.
May 2009: China challenges a submission by Vietnam and joint submission by Vietnam and Malaysia to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. In its note verbal, China asserts its claims to sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and Macceslfield Bank and to jurisdiction over “adjacent waters.” China also attaches a map to its note, which depicts its sovereignty claims and the nine-dashed line.
2009-10: China expanded its decade-long annual unilateral fishing ban to include foreign vessels. China increased its regular maritime patrols, expanded scientific activities and naval exercises in the region.
May 2011: China Marine Surveillance vessels severed exploration cables of PetroVietnam vessels twice, the first time deep within Vietnam’s disputed EEZ. In both instances, Chinese law enforcement vessels were either directly involved or were escorting vessels that cut the cables. China justified its actions by claiming that foreign ships were illegally surveying in Chinese waters.
June 2011: Philippine reports allege that Chinese ships unloaded construction materials at Amy Douglas Bank in the Philippines’ EEZ and planted markers on Reed Bank and Boxall Reef. China denied the reports.
April 2012: China and the Philippines faced off over Scarborough Shoal in April after a Philippine Navy frigate raided Chinese fishing boats that Manila claimed were operating illegally in the area. A stand-off ensued between maritime law enforcement vessels from both sides for more than two months. Though both China and the Philippines verbally agreed to withdraw their vessels in June under the auspices of U.S. mediation, China failed to keep its end of the bargain. Since then, China has retained control of the shoal.
June 2012: The China National Offshore Oil Company invites foreign oil companies to bid on nine explorations blocks in the center of the South China Sea, which overlap with Vietnamese blocks within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.
July 2012: China upgraded the administrative status of Sansha city and releasing blocks located in Vietnam’s EEZ for international bidding.
2012: In the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting convened in Cambodia in July 2012, no joint communiqué was issued for the first time in the organization’s history. Many reports suggested that China intervened in the deliberations to prevent any reference to the South China Sea.
May 2014: China deploys a deep-water semisubmersible drilling rig, HY 981, to waters near the Triton Island in the southwestern trip of the Paracel Islands and also withing Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, sparking an intense confrontation between law enforcement and fishing vessels from both sides.
2014-2015: In November 2014, satellite images reveal that China has initiated significant land reclamation activities on the seven features that it occupies in the South China Sea. By the end of 2015, reclamation had occurred on all seven features, including the contsturction of airfields on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs.
The Hainan government has responsibility for the Paracel and Spratly Islands (Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha islands in Chinese) and has tried to nurture a tourism industry on these islands, leading to diplomatic protests from other claimants.
The China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the only Chinese company with deep sea drilling technology, opened up energy reserves near the Paracels in June 2012 to international bids in a move to dissuade Vietnam’s foreign lessee’s from developing the oil and gas resources in those blocks. CNOOC also deployed the deep water drilling platform HYSY 981 near the Paracel Islands in May 2014, leading to severe protests from Vietnam. The rig was removed in July, a month before scheduled completion of drilling activities. CNOOC later claimed that it had all the data it needed and would study it in Hainan.
In early 2015, the South China Sea Fisheries Research Institute under the Chinese Academy of Fishery Sciences completed a two-year survey of fishery resources in the middle and southern regions of the SCS.