Last weekend, angry young protesters in China and Japan took to the streets to demonstrate to the international community their countries’ claims over what Tokyo calls the Senkaku Islands and Beijing refers to as the Diaoyu.
One of the sides must be wrong, historically. But which side? Each government, of course, says it has the better claim.
The mainland Chinese government and state-controlled media say the uninhabited islets in the East China Sea have belonged to China since ancient times, going as far back as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). They also say Japan “stole” the islets together with Taiwan in the closing days of the first Sino-Japanese War (August 1894 to March 1895) in which Japan was victorious, critically weakening the already ailing Qing Dynasty.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government and a majority of academic experts in Japan argue there is no evidence showing China had control over the Senkakus in ancient times. The islets were featured in ancient Chinese maps and documents probably as landmarks for maritime journeys, they say.
The academic debates over interpretations of ancients maps and documents appear endless and highly technical, in particular to those unable to read the original texts in Japanese or Chinese.
Japanese scholars say Beijing is staking its claim on “history in hindsight,” and a number of sources show that China, at least officially, didn’t recognize the islets as part of its territory prior to the 1970s.
Beijing and Taipei officially started claiming the islands in 1971 — 76 years after Japan incorporated them in 1895. Their claim came after a group of scientists under a United Nations commission reported in May 1969 that one of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves could exist under the seafloor near the Senkakus.
“China started claiming the Senkakus in the race for oil resources. Until then, China hadn’t said anything about the islets,” said Kentaro Serita, a professor of international law at the graduate school of Aichi Gakuin University.
China and Taiwan have demanded Japan return the Senkakus based on the 1943 Cairo Declaration, which Japan accepted in 1945 when it signed the Potsdam Declaration to end Japan’s war with China and the war in the Pacific.
The Cairo Declaration, jointly issued by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China, stated “Japan shall be stripped of” all the territories it had “stolen from the Chinese,” including Manchuria, Taiwan and the Pescadores Islands.
But after Japan’s surrender on Aug. 14, 1945, the Chinese government, then led by Chiang Kai-shek, didn’t try to incorporate the islets. Instead, it started advancing into Taiwan in October 1945 and held a ceremony to celebrate the recovery of Taiwan as early as Oct. 25 that year.
“The fact is the U.S. put Okinawa including the Senkakus under its postwar Occupation only after China had declared finishing recovering Taiwan. But China didn’t raise any objection at that time,” Serita said.
“China was a member of the Allied forces and Chiang Kai-shek knew where the U.S. was going to occupy. It wouldn’t have been difficult for China to raise objections (to the U.S.), but it didn’t,” he pointed out.
Japan officially renounced possession of Taiwan in 1951, when Tokyo concluded the San Francisco Peace Treaty with the United States, Britain and 46 other Western countries to end the postwar Occupation.
The treaty stated that the Ryukyu Islands — which included the Senkaku Islands — would remain under the U.S. Occupation. Based on this, the U.S. Occupation authorities took a number of administrative measures concerning the islands, even using two islets as bombing ranges. But neither China nor Taiwan raised any objection, despite Japan’s acceptance of the 1943 Cairo Declaration.
Okinawa, including the Senkakus, was eventually returned to Japan in 1972.
“The fact that China expressed no objection to the status of the islands being under the administration of the United States under Article III of the San Francisco Peace Treaty clearly indicates that China did not consider the Senkaku Islands as part of Taiwan,” the Foreign Ministry says on its website.
“It was not until the latter half of the 1970s, when the question of the development of petroleum resources on the continental shelf of the East China Sea came to the surface, that the government of China and Taiwan authorities began to raise questions regarding the Senkaku Islands,” it says.
After the 1970s, China started arguing the postwar U.S. Occupation of the Senkakus was also “illegal.” Beijing, along with the Soviet Union and many other socialist states, hadn’t signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty.
The Japanese government says there are “no territorial disputes” over the Senkakus and it is confident of its claim in terms of international law.
But China may be attempting to make an emotional appeal to its people along with observers in the international community.
Japan first started studying the incorporation of the islets in 1885, and after conducting surveys three times over the next decade, declared it had incorporated the Senkakus in January 1895. Japan claimed the uninhabited islands were confirmed as what is called “terra nullius” in international law — or land belonging to no country — with no traces of the Qing Dynasty’s control found there.
Japan’s incorporation took place — whether by coincidence or not — amid the closing days of the Sino-Japanese War, but Tokyo argues it had nothing to do with Japan’s position of strength at the time.
Japan and China signed the Shimonoseki Treaty, called the Maguan Treaty in China, in April 1895 to end the war.
The Chinese take a different view of the incorporation.
Since 1971, the Chinese government has argued that it was part of Japan’s modern “aggression” toward China, a stance that has won widespread support among the public on the mainland, as shown by the recent anti-Japan rallies in some Chinese cities.
“Now, the appeal for the ‘dominion since the ancient times’ has developed in the context of expression of nationalistic sentiment, not of confirmation of (the administrative) power” over the islands, wrote Tatsuo Urano, a professor emeritus at Nihon University, in a 2005 book on the Senkakus.
Urano is an authoritative expert on international law and territorial disputes. Despite all the academic debate over the islands’ history and international law, what may count most is whether Japan can retain control of the islands given the realities of today’s realpolitik, Urano said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
Afraid of causing further diplomatic rows with China or Taiwan, the Japanese government has long prohibited anyone — including Japanese citizens and lawmakers — from landing or building any structures on the islands, despite its sovereignty claim.
Instead, Japan Coast Guard ships patrol around the islets 24 hours a day.
Urano believes China may in the future attempt to seize some land on the islets to establish effective control, given Beijing’s recent tough diplomatic stance and Tokyo’s long-standing policy of not further strengthening its control over the islands.
“Even if you have some historical facts, you wouldn’t be able to do anything if you lost effective control over the islands,” Urano said. “For example, what if 30 or 50 (Chinese people) land and start living on the islets? That would be the end of all the issues” in realpolitik.