References to ancient documents alone are not enough evidence to support China’s sovereignty claims to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea because they do not prove it was exercising effective control, a Japanese expert on territorial disputes said recently.

Takashi Tsukamoto, a professor of international law at Tokai University, also said Japan is in a favorable position because it has long had effective control over the islets, and said that acknowledging the existence of the dispute — which Tokyo has so far refused to do — would not place it at a disadvantage.

Citing international judicial precedents, Tsukamoto said, “Just presenting old records that simply refer to the discovery of land or landmarks along sea routes, as China is doing, is not enough as evidence.”

He was referring to China’s claims that the Japanese-controlled islets, known as Diaoyu in China, have historically been its inherent territory based on documents from the Ming and Qing dynasties.

“To claim (the islets) as its own territory, China must show evidence of having expressed the intention to possess (them) and to have exercised effective control,” he added.

Tsukamoto also dismissed China’s repeated argument that Japan “stole” the islands from it during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. “China’s assertion is merely a political campaign, not a legal issue.

“Under the San Francisco Peace Treaty, administrative rights over the Senkakus were entrusted to the United States as part of Okinawa,” he said of the post-World War II treaty that entered into force in 1952.

On the other hand, with regard to the Japanese government’s stance of denying the existence of any territorial dispute over the Senkakus, the professor suggested that worries that acknowledging China’s claims would put Japan at a disadvantage may be unfounded.

“Under international law, whether there is a conflict is determined objectively,” he said. “Just because one of the countries concerned says ‘there is no conflict’ does not mean this would be accepted as is.”

Tsukamoto pointed out that while Japan on the one hand is rejecting China’s demand to acknowledge the Senkaku dispute, it is on the other asking South Korea to recognize the conflict over Japan’s own claims to Takeshima, a set of Seoul-administered islets known in South Korea as Dokdo.

“This (contradiction) has become a hindrance when Japan tries to make its case in the international arena,” he said.

“Even if Japan admits the existence of a territorial dispute with regard to the Senkakus, it would not put itself at a disadvantage,” he added.

As for calls within Japan for the government to build infrastructure on the Senkakus to bolster its display of effective control, Tsukamoto said that would be the wrong approach.

“Actions taken to strengthen one’s position after another country has asserted territorial claims are not counted as evidence under international law,” he explained.

It would be more effective, as evidence, for Japan to continue doing as it has been, including dispatching its patrol boats to the surrounding area as well as exercising its authority to levy taxes and implement law enforcement, Tsukamoto said.

In addition, he said, “China has (recently) been sending its surveillance ships and other vessels to intrude into Japanese territorial waters, but as this action does not date back a long time, it is most likely this will not be counted as evidence” to support Beijing’s claims, he said.

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