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Senkaku Power Game: An Overview of the Japan-China Islands Dispute

In September 2012, Japan’s nationalization of the Senkaku Islands brought a flare-up to a simmering dispute with China over who owns the territory. As a result, the November 2014 bilateral summit in Beijing was the first between the countries’ leaders for over two years. This article summarizes the complex history of the islands and the dispute and explores the larger issues of sea power in the region.

Extended, discreet negotiations laid the groundwork for the November 10 meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and President Xi Jinping of China on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. On November 7, shortly before the summit took place, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued the following statement.

“Toward the improvement of the Japan-China relations, quiet discussions have been held between the Governments of Japan and China. Both sides have come to share views on the following points:

“1. Both sides confirmed that they would observe the principles and spirit of the four basic documents between Japan and China and that they would continue to develop a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.

“2. Both sides shared some recognition that, following the spirit of squarely facing history and advancing toward the future, they would overcome political difficulties that affect their bilateral relations.

“3. Both sides recognized that they had different views as to the emergence of tense situations in recent years in the waters of the East China Sea, including those around the Senkaku Islands, and shared the view that, through dialogue and consultation, they would prevent the deterioration of the situation, establish a crisis management mechanism and avert the rise of unforeseen circumstances.

“4. Both sides shared the view that, by utilizing various multilateral and bilateral channels, they would gradually resume dialogue in political, diplomatic and security fields and make an effort to build a political relationship of mutual trust.”

It is unusual to announce a formal agreement in order to make possible a meeting with the leader of the host country of a major international summit, though it is not unheard of. What does this statement signify? As China accepted the deal after having sought a compromise from Japan, in some sense Japan must have compromised. But where exactly was that compromise? And above all else, why has the issue caused such a high level of bilateral tension?

In reality, the issue of the Senkakus (which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands) has merely been a means of further expanding the military “game” between the two nations. As it is most unlikely that the recent agreement will bring an end to the dispute, and the islands seem almost certain to remain a point of contention between Japan and China over the long term, this article will offer a general overview.

Almost Entirely Unfit for Human Habitation

The Senkaku Islands are situated in the East China Sea, 410 kilometers west of Okinawa’s main island, 170 km north of Ishigaki Island, 170 km west-northwest of Taiwan, and 330 km east of the coast of Fujian Province in China. For administrative purposes, the group is a part of the municipality of Ishigaki in the western part of Okinawa Prefecture, and it includes the following islands: Uotsuri (the largest), Kitakojima, Minamikojima, Kuba, Taishō, Okinokitaiwa, Okinominamiiwa, and Tobise. The islands have a total area of 5.17 km2, consisting almost entirely of rocky ground unsuitable for human habitation.

There were no permanent residents on the Senkakus until modern times, meaning that it was terra nullius (land belonging to no nation) under international law. However, it does appear that the seas surrounding the islands were known as fishing grounds to the fishermen of the East China Sea before then, and both the Japanese name of the main island, “Uotsuri,” and the Chinese name for the island group, “Diaoyu,” use terms meaning “fishing.”

From 1885 on, Japan conducted repeated surveys to establish that the Senkaku Islands were in fact terra nullius and, in line with the proper rules for taking possession of territory under international law, formally incorporated the Senkakus into its territory in January 1895. The Treaty of Shimonoseki, which concluded the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 with the ceding to Japan by Qing China of Taiwan and the Penghu Islands (Pescadores), was signed in April of that year, but the Senkakus were not mentioned in the treaty.

After the islands became Japanese territory in 1895, the government granted a 30-year lease for the islands of Uotsuri, Kuba, Kitakojima, and Minamikojima to Koga Tatsushirō, a businessman born in Fukuoka Prefecture and living in Okinawa. Koga built a katsuobushi (dried bonito flake) plant and other buildings, and there were people living on the islands until 1940, after which they again became uninhabited.

Postwar US administration

In the Cairo Declaration of December 1943, the leaders of Britain, the United States, and China set forth their intentions “that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China.” This stance was carried over to the Potsdam Declaration of 1945, which Japan accepted the terms of, relinquishing its rights to territories including Taiwan (Formosa) and Korea, when it surrendered to the Allied forces at the end of World War II.

In the postwar period the United States administered all of Okinawa Prefecture, including the Senkakus, along with the Amami Islands (part of Kagoshima Prefecture) separately from the rest of Japan, continuing to exercise jurisdiction even after occupied Japan regained its independence under the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951.  As the Senkakus were uninhabited, they were used by the US military as firing and bombing ranges. Nobody felt any doubts that they were Japanese territory, and they were treated as such at the time of Japan’s 1945 surrender and of the 1951 peace treaty. Looking back at documents and materials of the time, we can see that the government of the People’s Republic of China also then accepted that the Senkakus were part of Okinawa. At the very least, we can say that there is no history of the islands ever belonging to China.

Then in November 1969, at a summit between Japanese Prime Minister Satō Eisaku and US President Richard Nixon, it was formally agreed that Okinawa would be returned to Japanese administration, the Amami Islands having previously been returned in 1953. On May 15, 1972, Okinawa was reunited with Japan, and naturally this included the Senkakus. However, around this time an unexpected challenge emerged.

  • [2015.01.07]
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