A family stuck in the middle of the East China Sea

A family stuck in the middle of the East China Sea

As regional powers fight for control of the China Seas, one family wants out. With the lease to the Japanese government expiring in March 2014, the Kurihara family are scrambling to sell four out of the five resource-rich and much-disputed Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu in China, "as early as we can."

Tokyo’s inflammatory governor Shintaro Ishihara leads the bidding war after the Kurihara family today refused Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s offer, explaining, "It is not our family’s idea to suddenly switch partners just because someone else has appeared on the scene." Though Ishihara’s offer has not been made public, the islands’ estimated value tops $19 million.

Unsurprisingly, Beijing, who claims the islands on "indisputable historical and legal grounds," has not been invited to the negotiating table and has instead renounced the sale from afar, warning in a press statement released Saturday that "no one will ever be allowed to buy and sell China’s sacred territory."

The Kurihara family’s sudden eagerness to sell is unsurprising. Tensions between Beijing and Tokyo peaked earlier this month after Chinese vessels repeatedly entered Japanese waters in an incident eerily reminiscent of the Scarborough Shoal affair. Claiming they were protecting Chinese fishing rights, the Chinese patrol ships refused a Japanese Coast Guard patrol’s request to leave the area, instead insisting the Japanese forces leave "Chinese territorial waters" immediately. Tokyo promptly lodged two formal complaints against China before withdrawing its ambassador from Beijing in protest on July 16th. Heads butted again at Cambodia’s failed ASEAN conference when Chinese Foreign Minister Yang "reaffirmed China’s principled position" and stressed that countries "indisputable sovereignty."

Emotions run high on both sides as the islands have sparked dramatic conflict in the past. In 2010, Japan arrested a Chinese trawler for ramming Japanese coastguard vessels repeatedly, sparking a diplomatic row that lasted weeks and inspiring a ‘Defend Diaoyu’ video game. Meanwhile, the Japanese public has donated nearly $1 million to Tokyo’s island fund, with the officials of the municipal government citing 197 calls of assistance in recent days in a display of widespread public support.

Though the world remains focused on the southern Spratly Islands, it may be time to look a little further east.