The Cairo Declaration and the Senkaku Islands Dispute


On the eve of the Cairo Declaration’s eightieth anniversary, a noted historian examines Beijing’s use of the document as a basis for its claim to the Senkaku Islands, a PR weapon against Japan, and a justification for its own challenge to the regional order.

In late November 1943, as World War II raged, the leaders of the United States, Britain, and the Republic of China gathered in Egypt for a trilateral summit. The outcome of that meeting was the Cairo Declaration, which China has repeatedly cited as a legal basis for its claim to the Senkaku Islands, controlled by Japan. In the following, I examine the content of the declaration, its relevance to the territorial dispute, and its use as a weapon in China’s propaganda war against Japan.

Chiang Kai-shek’s Focus

For almost a year, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been trying to arrange a meeting with ROC leader Chiang Kai-shek, hoping to cement China’s status as the fourth of the “great allied powers.” The Cairo Conference (November 22–26, 1943), which included Roosevelt, Chiang, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, brought that effort to fruition.

The summit hinged on a series of bilateral talks between Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-shek. According to Chiang’s diary and other sources, the first session between Roosevelt and Chiang, on November 23, yielded a verbal agreement on the following four points, to which Churchill subsequently assented: (1) Japan was to return all territories that it had seized from China; (2) Japan was to be permanently stripped of all the islands that it had occupied in the Pacific; (3) Korea was to become free and independent after its liberation (Japan’s defeat); and (4) Japan’s public and private assets in China were to be expropriated by the Chinese government.

But what territories were included under the first point?

A diary entry by Chiang Kai-shek, written immediately after the talks, sheds some light on the question. He called the agreement a momentous development, noting that the United States and Britain had expressly promised China the return not only of Manchuria but also of Taiwan and Penghu (the Pescadores)—“territories that were lost some 50 years ago”— while further agreeing to Korea’s freedom and independence after the war. It is clear from these comments that the focus of Chiang’s concern was Manchuria, Taiwan, and Penghu, along with an independent Korea.

Chiang Kai-shek did not extend China’s territorial claims to the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa). Within the Nationalist government, the prevailing view was that Japanese sovereignty over the Ryukyus should be accepted, given that the islands were already under Japan’s control before the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, but that view was by no means unanimous. There was heated debate regarding the legitimacy of Japan’s claim, with some insisting that the Ryukyus belonged to China and others advocating independence. With this in mind, Chiang appears to have been contemplating a postwar arrangement in which the Ryukyus would be placed under an international trusteeship, with China and the United States as administering authorities. In his November 23 entry, Chiang writes that he proposed such an arrangement in order to “reassure the United States.”

The text of the Cairo Declaration was drafted by representatives of the three countries and adopted on the afternoon of November 26 upon approval by the three heads of state. The United States and Britain secured the Soviet Union’s approval at the trilateral Tehran Conference held immediately afterward, and the document was jointly released by the United States, Britain, and the ROC on December 1, 1943.

Relevance to the Senkakus

In the Cairo Declaration, the three Allies affirm “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.”

At the time it was issued, the Cairo Declaration was essentially a press release, as opposed to an official diplomatic document bearing the verifiable signatures of the three leaders. Nonetheless, it was later cited in article 8 of the Potsdam Declaration (defining the terms for Japan’s surrender), which stipulated that “the terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out.” Accordingly, the government of the People’s Republic of China, which was not invited to sign the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, has placed great emphasis on the Cairo Declaration as part of the legal framework defining the postwar order in the Asia-Pacific region. (The government of the Republic of China in Taiwan was also excluded from the 1951 peace conference, but in 1952 it concluded a separate peace treaty with Japan, which incorporated the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty. The Senkakus were not an issue during the negotiation of the Japan-ROC treaty.)

The government of Japan, rather than argue over the intent of the Cairo Declaration, maintains that the disposition of territories was settled under the San Francisco Peace Treaty. Under article 2, Japan renounced all rights to Formosa (Taiwan), Penghu (the Pescadores), the Kuril Islands, the Spratly Islands, and the Paracel Islands. At the same time, in Article 3, Japan agreed to a US-administered trusteeship over the “Nansei Shoto,” which included Ryukyus and other islands in the area. In accordance with this provision, the Senkaku Islands were placed under US administration along with Okinawa and subsequently returned to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement.

Oil Adds Luster

The return of the uninhabited Senkaku Islands to Japan would probably have passed unnoticed had it not been for a 1968 seabed survey in the East China Sea conducted by the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE). When the results of the survey, released in 1969, revealed the potential for petroleum deposits in the area north of Taiwan, countries in the region suddenly began eyeing the tiny Senkakus with intense interest.

The first challenge came in June 1971 from the government of the ROC in Taipei. As Washington and Tokyo prepared to sign the Okinawa Reversion Agreement, Taipei issue a statement strongly protesting the inclusion of “the Daioyu Islands, over which the Republic of China has sovereignty.”

The following December, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement insisting that the Senkakus were a part of Taiwan (and therefore an integral part of China) and that their inclusion in the reversion agreement constituted a “blatant challenge to China’s territorial sovereignty.” Moreover, Beijing’s statement, unlike Taipei’s, went so far as to claim that Japan had “stolen” the Senkakus, along with Taiwan, through an unequal treaty (the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki) imposed on the Qing government in the wake of the first Sino-Japanese War.

The 2012 “Nationalization” Controversy

Tensions over the Senkakus began to rise around 2008 and came to a head in September 2012, when the government of Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko announced that it was transferring three of the islands from private to national ownership to ensure their “peaceful and stable management.” Beijing responded quickly, fiercely criticizing the Senkakus’ “nationalization” in a white paper issued by the State Council on September 25 (“Diaoyu Dao, an Inherent Territory of China”). The same arguments were echoed in Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s September 27 address to the UN General Assembly and in editorials in the state-run media.

In criticizing Japan’s action, Beijing launched two major lines of attack, both tied to the Cairo Declaration. The first was the notion that the Senkakus had been “stolen” from China in 1895 (an idea previously expressed in the 1971 statement by Beijing’s Foreign Ministry). This was the clear implication of a May 2013 statement by Premier Li Keqiang, who argued that the Cairo Declaration “clearly stipulates that Japan must return all the territories it has stolen from China, including Northeast China [Manchuria] and such islands as Taiwan.” Of course, that argument also hinges on Beijing’s questionable interpretation of the Cairo Declaration as a legitimate instrument mandating the reversal of Japanese territorial gains relating to all wars of aggression extending back to the First Sino-Japanese War.

The second thrust of China’s criticism was that Japan’s “nationalization” of the Senkakus was not only a violation of Chinese sovereignty but stood against the postwar international order (established by the Cairo and Potsdam declarations) and was a denial of the outcome of the war against fascism.

China has long portrayed World War II as a fight between the forces of fascism on the one hand and a “united front against fascism” (the Allies) on the other. Further, it depicts China’s role in that struggle as pivotal. As a key member of the anti-fascist alliance, China made the Allies’ victory over fascism possible by fighting and defeating Japan in Asia. That is why China was recognized as one of the four “great allied powers” (the United States, Britain, China, and the Soviet Union) and, as such, played a central role in the formation of the postwar order founded on the Cairo and Potsdam declarations. This interpretation of history is fundamental to China’s national identity.

China also places great emphasis on its role in the founding of the United Nations, which it views as an integral aspect of its contribution to the fight against fascism. In his September 27 address to the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said that Japan’s purchase of the islands constituted “an outright denial of the outcomes of the victory of the world anti-fascist war” and posed “a grave challenge to the postwar international order and the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.“

On December 1, 2013, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a “comment on the seventieth anniversary of the Cairo Declaration.” In addition to repeating Beijing’s boilerplate describing the declaration as an important outcome of the war against fascism and a cornerstone of the postwar order, the statement noted that “the Cairo Declaration provided China with an important basis in international law for recovering territory seized and stolen by Japanese militarism.”

In short, since 2012, Beijing has used the Cairo Declaration to broadcast an image of Japan not only as a past aggressor but also as a violator of the postwar international order.

China’s Expansionist Agenda

Of course, the Noda cabinet had no thought of challenging the international order when it transferred three of the Senkaku Islands from private to national ownership in September 2012—nor, indeed, was it issuing a challenge to Beijing. In fact, the move was aimed at preventing the disputed territories’ transfer to another party, who threatened to upset the status quo and exacerbate tensions by building infrastructure on the islets.

It might be argued that the territorial disagreements between Japan and China, including the Senkaku Islands dispute, boil down to which document takes priority in international law—the Cairo Declaration, as Beijing insists, or the San Francisco Peace Treaty, as Tokyo maintains. But from a Japanese perspective, Beijing’s interpretation of international law, and of its historical context, is deeply colored by its own unique ideological and political bias.

Indeed, as China has amassed economic and military power, it has used the Cairo Declaration to justify its own expansionist activity in the Asia-Pacific region, and that trend is sure to intensify.

The US-led San Francisco System, established in the early 1950s, is the basis for the stable international order that has endured in the Asia-Pacific region for the past seven decades, and China is the country challenging that order. From Beijing’s viewpoint, the Cairo Declaration, which the United States recognizes, constitutes a powerful justification for this challenge.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: (From left) Chiang Kai-shek, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill at the Cairo Conference, November 22, 1943. © Jiji.)

China Senkaku Islands Cairo Declaration post-war process