Earlier this week Kyodo News dropped a bombshell (pun intended) by introducing the contents of declassified U.S. documents that the U.S. government turned down a request in June 1978 for its military based in Japan to use its firing and bombing ranges in the Senkaku Islands.

The reason given in the story, reprinted on April 5 in The Japan Times (“U.S. ceased using Senkaku islets as firing range in 1978 to avoid riling China”), is that the U.S. government feared “it could become embroiled in a Sino-Japanese territorial dispute.”

Although the fact that the U.S. military has not used the ranges since that time is commonly known, the reason for it has been one of speculation without the supporting documents. Thus, the importance of the Kyodo reporting.

Until now, the speculation centered on two potential explanations. First, is that the U.S. government, most likely the State Department, denied its support for using the ranges by the U.S. military in Japan out of a curious concern about irritating China, even though Japan had administrative rights over the islands (as per the bilateral Okinawa Reversion Agreement signed between the United States and Japan in June 1971) and Japan leased the islands as ranges to the United States for its military to use.

The second potential explanation was that the Japanese Foreign Ministry, out of a similarly curious concern, asked the U.S. government not to use the ranges it leased to the U.S. even though it claims sovereignty over the islands. Because of the disappointingly weak posture of the Japanese government on demonstrating actual control over the islands over the past 49 years since their return to Japan in 1972, it is not inconceivable that Japan would indeed ask the U.S. to stop using the ranges, particularly as 1978 was a delicate year in Sino-Japanese relations.

In April 1978, for example, more than 100 Chinese fishing vessels descended upon the Senkaku Islands, violating Japan’s territorial waters. The following month, Japanese activists landed on the islands, proclaiming Japanese sovereignty over them, and in August, other activists built the small lighthouse on the island that was later taken over by the Japan Coast Guard. That same month, moreover, Japan and China signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, in which both countries declared that “neither of them should seek hegemony” in this or any other region.

The Kyodo article helps answer some of the speculation. Citing U.S. declassified documents, it states the “the United States distanced itself from Japan, one of its allies, in order to avoid direct confrontation with China over the issue of territorial sovereignty.” However, it does not introduce any of the details, such as who made the decision or how it was reached.

As introduced in my book “The Origins of U.S. Policy in the East China Sea Islands Dispute: Okinawa’s Reversion and the Senkaku Islands” (Routledge, 2014), the U.S. Military Government of the Ryukyu Islands announced in April 1948 that the U.S. Air Force would begin using Kobi Sho, or Kuba Jima, for air-to ground target practice and continued to do so until 1955, after which the U.S. Navy primarily started to utilize it. In mid-April 1956, the U.S. Navy began using Sekibi Sho, or Taisho Jima, as well. Because fishing is very good in the area, Okinawan fishermen requested that the original prohibition against entering the five-mile area around Kuba Jima be reduced, which it was to 100 yards in 1956. A five-mile ban has been in effect for Taisho Jima, although Chinese fishing and official vessels are said to regularly violate it.

The U.S. position on the Senkakus in recent decades is extremely complicated. Flawed is a better word. In any case, it is so convoluted that even one of its spokespersons, Department of Defense press secretary John Kirby, a former U.S. Navy rear admiral and former State Department press secretary, got into serious trouble in late February when he stated that the U.S. supported Japan’s “sovereignty” over the Senkakus, only to correct it four days later by saying there was “no change in policy.”

The policy of the American government, as explained in detail in my aforementioned book, is that although the U.S. agreed in June 1971 to return administrative rights over the Senkaku Islands (and other islands, such as Okinawa, that make up the Nansei Island Chain and had not been returned to Japan in 1953 at the time of the reversion of the Amami Group), the U.S. did not take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkakus. This was done in light of sudden claims by Taiwan, then a formal U.S. ally, and the People’s Republic of China, which national security adviser Henry Kissinger was secretly meeting with to arrange President Richard M. Nixon’s visit. Plans for the visit, known as the (first) Nixon Shock, was announced in July, or one month after the Okinawa Reversion Agreement was signed.

I am highly critical of the U.S. position, which is best flawed, and in reality, quite dangerous. My criticism is in part because it went against U.S. policy over the previous 77 years prior to 1972. Namely, since 1895 when the islands were incorporated into Japan, the U.S. did not question Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus, and after 1945 until 1972, occupied and administered the islands on behalf of Japan.

As my earlier book, “The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem: Okinawa in Postwar U.S.-Japan Relations, 1945-1952” (Routledge, 2001), shows, the U.S. government recognized Japan’s “residual sovereignty” over the Nansei Islands, of which the Senkaku Islands were included.

However, in 1971, the U.S. government began to distance itself from Japan and its own long-standing policy on the status of the islands (oddly refusing, for example, to name the islands in the agreement and necessitating a side set of agreed minutes). The Japanese government was understandably disappointed and confused at the about-face by the U.S. and criticized its “evasive attitude.”

This ambiguous stance by the U.S. government is a recipe for miscalculation by the PRC, which has become emboldened over the past 50 years by America’s policy of neutrality on the Senkakus. If the U.S. government does not return to its original policy of supporting Japan’s sovereignty over the islands as the ultimate deterrence, it is highly likely that conflict will result.

And if the U.S. is not able to provide adequate support to Japan in such a conflict, the bilateral alliance will likely dissolve. Not only will Japan be permanently weakened, but Taiwan will likely be lost, and so too later the Philippines. China will have broken through the “1st island chain.”

The issue is more than just about the training ranges. It is about the future of the Indo-Pacific region and all of us who live here. It is time for officials in the U.S. government to read a little history and re-evaluate its mistaken stance.

Eldridge is a former tenured associate professor at Osaka University specializing in Japanese political and diplomatic history and the former political adviser to the Marine Corps in Okinawa and Hawaii.

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