In China they are the Diaoyu islands. In Japan they are the Senkaku islands. Whatever they are called, these grass-covered rocky islands in the East China Sea are the source of growing tensions between Tokyo and Beijing.
Taipei too has an interest in these islands, but given Taiwan’s tenuous relationship with the mainland, its claims are hardly pressing.
At the centre of this festering territorial dispute are the huge potential windfalls from oil and natural gas deposits on the ocean floor — whoever can fully establish the title to the islands stands to benefit immensely. Last Thursday, Japan scrambled fighter jets to the islands when its airspace was breached by a Chinese military aircraft. Adding to the tension is the fact that Japanese voters seem to have given the conservative opposition Liberal Democratic Party a clear majority in parliamentary elections. With the economy mired in its fifth prolonged recession in the past two decades, there is nothing like a territorial dispute to fire up nationalist sentiment and populist support.
Elsewhere, China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia are at loggerheads over the Scarborough Shoals, little more than rocks where gas rights will reap dividends. And Japan and Russia too are in dispute over the sovereignty of islands between their nations.
Scrambling fighter jets and sending gunboats is not the way forward. Even though it is unlikely to happen, international binding arbitration on all of these disputes is the only practical solution.