Why China and Japan Can't Agree Who Owns the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands

Roundup: Talking About History

Koji Taira, at Japan Focus (Sept. 2004):

Which country should the islands called Diaoyu by the Chinese and Senkaku by the Japanese belong to, China or Japan? Currently, these islands are under Japanese control, but China also claims sovereignty over them. When signing the 1978 Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship, then Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping said: "Our generation is not wise enough to find common language on this [Diaoyu/Senkaku] question. The next generation will certainly be wiser. They will surely find a solution acceptable to all."

We, the people of the 21st century, are the "next generation." Although it is doubtful that we are any wiser than our predecessors, we can at least try to improve our understanding of these issues.

A first step in that direction is a well researched book on the Diaoyu/Senkaku question, Suganuma Unryu's Sovereign Rights and Territorial Space in Sino-Japanese Relations: Irredentism and the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000).

Origins of the dispute

The Diaoyu Islands are China's irredenta, an area that historically belonged to China but is currently under Japanese control (to adapt the dictionary definition of the word). There is a powerful current of irredentism concerning these islands among Chinese people not only in China proper, but all over the world. Many Chinese feel that China was unjustly deprived of the Diaoyu Islands and that they should be a rightful part of Chinese territory.

Major support for Chinese irredentism comes from the history of relations between Imperial China (Ming and Qing) and the Ryukyu Kingdom. The acknowledged boundary between China and Ryukyu until the demise of the Ryukyu Kingdom was somewhere in the sea east and south of the Diaoyu Islands (west and north of the Ryukyu Islands). This Sino-Ryukyuan boundary became a Sino-Japanese boundary when Japan took over Ryukyu and proclaimed it Okinawa Prefecture in 1879. After the incorporation of Ryukyu in the empire of Japan, the Japanese government turned its attention to other small islands in the surrounding seas. In 1885, Tokyo declared sovereignty over the North and South Ufuagarijima (today's Daito) Islands and placed them under the jurisdiction of Okinawa Prefecture. About this time, the Japanese-appointed governor of Okinawa petitioned Tokyo for the take-over of the Diaoyu Islands. (Another uninhabited island to the south of the Daito Islands was added to the Daito group as Okino Daitojima in 1900.) The Japanese government hesitated, but decided to incorporate the Diaoyu Islands in Japanese territory in January 1895 in the midst of the Sino-Japanese War, which ended with the Treaty of Shimonoseki in November of the same year. The Treaty stipulates, among other things, that China cedes to Japan "the island of Formosa together with all islands appertaining or belonging to said island of Formosa" [Article II{b}]. Whether the Diaoyu Islands, which were not called Senkaku by Japan until 1900, are implied in "islands appertaining or belonging to said island of Formosa" is an unsettled question. China's answer is affirmative, while Japan insists that these islands were terra nullius when Japan took over. Japan justifies its position by the international law of how terra nullius becomes a specific state's territory. The legality of the Japanese occupation of the Diaoyu Islands on January 14, 1895 as well as the question of how these islands figured in the negotiation for the Treaty of Shimonseki deserves renewed attention.


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