Senkaku or Diaoyu(tai) Islands?


Japan’s recent purchase of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands has predictably reignited tensions amongst China, Japan, and Taiwan. Geographically, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands lie 410 kilometers from Japan's Okinawa Islands, about 300 kilometers from the Chinese mainland and less than 100 kilometers from Taiwan.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute has been close to the boil for months. The Japanese prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, took the decision to buy the islands to head off a more destabilising but popular proposal not only to acquire them but also to begin their active development. China's reaction, including unleashing mass protests, sending ships to the area and threatening trade sanctions, was harsh but not unusual.

Japan’s recent purchase of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands has predictably reignited tensions amongst China, Japan, and Taiwan. Geographically, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands lie 410 kilometers from Japan's Okinawa Islands, about 300 kilometers from the Chinese mainland and less than 100 kilometers from Taiwan.

Japanese point of view

There exists no issue of territorial sovereignty to be resolved concerning the Senkaku Islands. The Senkaku Islands are an inherent part of the territory of Japan, in light of historical facts and based upon international law. The Senkaku Islands are under the valid control of the Government of Japan.

The Japanese central government formally annexed the islands on 14 January 1895 in accordance with the ways of duly acquiring territorial sovereignty under international law (occupation of terra nullius). Studying surveys of the Senkaku Islands, thoroughly conducted by the Government of Japan through the agencies of Okinawa Prefecture and by way of other methods, it was confirmed that the Senkaku Islands had been not only uninhabited but showed no trace of having been under the control of China.

The islands came under US government occupation in 1945 after the surrender of Japan ended World War II. It was not until 1970, when the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) conducted an academic survey which indicated the possibility of the existence of petroleum resources on the East China Sea, that the Government of China and Taiwan authorities began to make their own assertions about territorial sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands. Prior to this, there had been no objection expressed by any country or region to Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands. In 1971, the Okinawa Reversion Treaty passed the U.S. Senate, returning the islands together with Okinawa to Japanese control in 1972.

Chinese point of view

On Tuesday, September 25th, a White Paper was issued by the State Council Information Office of the People's Republic of China  in Beijing. According to the White Paper, Japan accelerated its invasion and external expansion after the Meiji Restoration. Japan seized Ryukyu in 1879 and changed its name to Okinawa Prefecture. Soon after that, Japan began to act covertly to invade and occupy Diaoyu Dao and secretly "included" Diaoyu Dao in its territory at the end of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. "Japan then forced China to sign the unequal Treaty of Shimonoseki and cede to Japan the island of Formosa (Taiwan), together with Diaoyu Dao and all other islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Formosa," says the White Paper.

There are books, reports and maps from the 15th century, during the period of the Ming Dynasty, that establish in no uncertain terms that Diaoyu is Chinese territory. Even writings by Japanese scholars and documents in the late 19th century acknowledged this fact. The challenge to Chinese ownership of Diaoyu came from Japanese annexation of the Islands in 1894-5 following the first Sino-Japanese War. China under the Ching Dynasty was too weak to fight back and regain lost territory. But annexation through military force does not confer legitimacy upon the act of conquest.

After Japan's capitulation at the end of the Second World War the victors who included China and the US recognised that Diaoyu was Chinese territory. It was only for administrative purposes that Diaoyu was placed under US control as part of its governance over the Ryukyu Islands. The US was then the occupying power in Japan following the latter’s surrender. However, when China was taken over by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, the US changed its position and began to treat the Islands as part of Japan. The Chinese communist leadership protested vehemently.

Japan asserts that neither Beijing nor Taipei objected to U.S. administration after WWII. That’s true, but what Japan does not mention is that neither Beijing nor Taipei were invited as signatories of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, from which the U.S. derived administrative rights.

In 1971, the US Senate returned the Diaoyu Islands, together with Okinawa, to Japan under the Okinawa Reversion Treaty. Again, the Chinese government in Beijing objected, as did the Taiwan government which also regards the islands as part of China.

Taiwanese peace initiative

Last month, coastguard vessels from Taiwan and Japan "bumped into" each other in waters near the disputed island chain, as the Taiwanese vessel was escorting activists to the area.

President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan presented a peace proposal in which he urged all parties to exercise self-restraint, shelve controversies, establish a mechanism for cooperation on exploring and developing resources in the region and use peaceful means to solve the long-standing dispute.

Options for settlement of the dispute

  1. More international support for the Taiwanese peace initiative. Charles Tannock, who is the president of the European Parliament-Taiwan Friendship Group, lauded the initiative as an effective way to help reduce the tension in East Asia. The principles embodied in the initiative, such as peaceful dialogue, joint exploration of resources serve the European Union's interests in East Asia, Tannock said.
  2. Diplomatic negotiations at a high level in Taipei, Beijing and Tokyo.
  3. Start proceedings at the International Court of Justice; this option is rather unlikely, because neither of the parties will conform themselves to a negative outcome.
  4. Now China and Japan are party to the United Nations Convention to the Law of the Sea, both countries might try to consider the settlement of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute a part of a more comprehensive (package) deal solving other maritime boundary disputes in the China sea.
  5. Declare the islands res nullius (again): as a consequence the waters around Senkaku/Diaoyu islands might be divided according to the equidistance principle (North Sea shelf cases) and China, Japan and Taiwan will enjoy an equal part of the waters around the islands to fish, explore and exercise their sovereignty.