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Why Are China and Japan Sparring Over Eight Tiny, Uninhabited Islands?

Potential energy wealth beneath the East China Sea's Senkaku Islands places them at the center of a tense territorial dispute between China and its neighbors.

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A team of Japanese surveyors prepares to depart for the Senkaku Islands, where oil and natural gas prospects loom large in a dispute with China. Below, a map shows the Senkaku and two other potentially energy-rich island chains that are part of a tug of war in the region.

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

Why are China and Japan locked in a tense face-off, alarming the world and inflicting substantial economic pain on themselves, over a bunch of tiny uninhabited islands in the East China Sea?

Nationalist politics and historical resentments figure heavily in the territorial dispute, as do fish. But there's another potent ingredient: energy.