Can International Law Help Resolve the Conflicts Over Uninhabited Islands in the East China Sea?

46 Pages Posted: 23 Mar 2015 Last revised: 17 Apr 2015

See all articles by Michael C. Davis

Michael C. Davis

The University of Hong Kong - Faculty of Law

Date Written: March 22, 2015


Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once famously urged that resolution of disputes with China’s neighbors over uninhabited islands be put off to a later generation, stating: “Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this question. The next generation will certainly be wiser.” Such sage advice seemed practical at the time, freeing China and its neighbors to focus on more pressing trade and economic development efforts. The wisdom of continuing deferral of the disputes over uninhabited islands is now in doubt, at least when peaceful alternatives may be considered. Beyond the rapid economic development and the consequent explosion of resource demands that has occurred since Deng uttered these words, technological development has made these deep seabed resources more readily accessible. Added to this has been China’s rapid economic development and associated military rise, encouraging China’s expanded attention to territorial sovereignty and resource claims in its periphery. Increased military confrontations over disputed islands have added to the urgency of this matter, and an impasse has prevailed. This article focuses on comparable disputes over two groups of uninhabited islands — the Dokdo (Takeshima in Japanese) Islands and the Diaoyu (Senkaku in Japanese) Islands — that may be pivotal to unraveling a series of volatile maritime disputes between Japan and South Korea, on the one hand, and Japan and China, on the other. The Dokdo/Takeshima and Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are located respectively in the Sea of Japan (known as the East Sea in Korea) and the East China Sea. This narrowing of the topic to these two particular island disputes and related maritime issues is offered in the hope that these two sets of disputes may hold some keys to the wider, more factually complex debate stretching across the region, both north to the Yellow Sea and south to the South China Sea. At the same time, there is hope the Japan-South Korea dispute may inform options available for the China-Japan dispute.

Keywords: island disputes, international law, law of the sea

Suggested Citation

Davis, Michael C., Can International Law Help Resolve the Conflicts Over Uninhabited Islands in the East China Sea? (March 22, 2015). University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 2015/007, Available at SSRN: or

Michael C. Davis (Contact Author)

The University of Hong Kong - Faculty of Law ( email )

Pokfulam Road
Hong Kong, Hong Kong

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