President Obama used his visit to Japan to reiterate that the United States is bound by treaty to defend the controversial Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu and insists are a sovereign part of China. In response, Xinhua reports the Chinese government is “closely monitoring” activity near the islands.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told Xinhua the nation is “closely following Japan’s recent military moves on its westernmost outpost, a tropical island some 150 km from China’s Diaoyu Islands.” While not declaring that China is directly monitoring the Senkaku Islands, but only the islands closeby, Yang told the newspaper: “The Chinese military will continue its patrols and military training in the areas concerned.”
The comments surface less than 24 hours after comments by President Barack Obama in Japan dismayed many in the Chinese government, when the president told Japanese newspaper Yonmiuri Shimbun that the United States is bound by treaty to defend the Senkaku Islands from claims of sovereignty by other nations that take on a military form– that is to say, any Chinese attempt to seize the islands with force will result in direct American action against China.
China’s initial response to the remarks was not from the Defense Ministry but from the Foreign Ministry. Qin Gang, a spokesman who has become a household name in the Western world among those following the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, responded to the president with a “call on the United States to respect its promises of not taking sides in territorial disputes.” Less directly, however, a reminder in Xinhua that the Chinese are watching the Senkakus and their neighbors carries across a similar message.
While the islands have been a matter of dispute for years, the recent tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands returned to the fore last November, when the Chinese government unilaterally established an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the Senkaku Islands– a military designation that would require all non-Chinese vessels to identify themselves to the Chinese government or face an attack. The Japanese government objected to this designation, arguing that it was a violation of Japanese sovereignty to demand that Japanese aircraft identify itself to a foreign government in sovereign Japanese airspace.
In response to China’s aggression on the Senkaku Islands, Japanese schools have begun to incorporate the Senkaku Islands into school curricula, teaching children that they are Japanese sovereign territory and omitting any information on the dispute with China. The Chinese government has objected to this as well.
While the Senkaku Islands are uninhabited, they are of high value to the country that controls them, given their proximity to China, Taiwan, and Japan. As the BBC notes, the islands “matter because they are close to important shipping lanes, offer rich fishing grounds and lie near potential oil and gas reserves.” While the Japanese officially incorporated the Senkaku Islands into their territory in the 19th Century, China argues that the islands have been part of China since ancient history and any subsequent claims are void.