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Japan's Dubious Claim to the Diaoyus


Japan's Dubious Claim to the Diaoyus




Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has reignited tensions between China and Japan with his plan for the metropolitan government to buy three of the disputed islands in the East China Sea known as the Diaoyus in Chinese and the Senkakus in Japanese. The governor's nationalist rhetoric and provocative actions do nothing to resolve the issue, and will make coming confrontations harder to back down from.


The only way to heal the wound once and for all is for the two parties to return to the crux of the problem: the merits of their legal claims. Japanese and Chinese politicians alike continue to offer one-sided and often flawed historical arguments.


Tokyo's official position appears to be strong. It claims that since 1885, the Japanese government repeatedly surveyed the Senkaku Islands and found no trace of Chinese control. Having confirmed it was unclaimed land, the government issued a Cabinet decision on Jan. 14, 1895 to incorporate them.


Moreover, the government says that these islands were not part of Taiwan, which was ceded to Japan based on the Treaty of Shimonoseki in May 1895. Nor were they included in the territory that Japan renounced under the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951.


The 1951 treaty instead treated them and Okinawa as Japanese territory under U.S. administration, which ended in 1971. Beijing expressed no objection to this arrangement, showing that China did not consider them part of Taiwan. It was not until 1970, when petroleum resources were discovered, that China and Taiwan claimed ownership, per this narrative.


However, my research casts doubt on Japan's claim. I traced more than 40 Meiji period documents from 1885-95 in government archives, many of which have never been cited. These documents demonstrate that the Meiji government acknowledged Chinese ownership.


In October 1885, the Japanese foreign minister wrote, "Chinese newspapers have been reporting rumors of our intention of occupying islands belonging to China located next to Taiwan.… At this time, if we were to publicly place national markers, this must necessarily invite China's suspicion.…" He then ordered that the matter should "await a more appropriate time" and "should not be made public."


In January 1892, the Okinawa governor wrote, "the opportunity to survey the islands again has not yet arrived," thereby requesting the Navy to dispatch navy ship Kaimon." However, miscommunication and bad weather prevented the survey.


In May 1894, the Home Ministry wrote, "Ever since the islands were investigated by persons dispatched by police agencies of Okinawa back in 1885, there have been no subsequent field surveys conducted." This was the final relevant correspondence prior to the Sino-Japanese War on Aug. 1, 1894.


In December 1894, after China had suffered some devastating defeats in the war, a secret document from Japan's Home Ministry stated, "the situation today has changed significantly since back then." The Meiji government accordingly incorporated the islands based on a Cabinet decision on Jan. 21, 1895, while the war was still underway. This was never made public and remained unknown to China.


In September 1896, Koga Tatsushiro became the first Japanese native to lease the islands. In his biography, he attributed Japan's possession of the islands to "the gallant military victory of our Imperial forces."


These documents clearly show that the islands were Chinese territory obtained as spoils of war. The Chinese do not dispute that the islands, along with Taiwan, were part of Japan from 1895 to 1945. But with the conclusion of World War II, the islands should have been restored to their pre-1895 legal status.


Beijing and Taipei claim that Ming dynasty records demonstrate that the islands were first discovered, named and used by the Chinese in the 15th century. These records include the islands as Chinese territory and further specify them as part of Taiwan.


They also assert that in 1895, the disputed islands were annexed by Japan due to China's defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War. According to the Cairo Declaration of 1943 and the Potsdam Declaration of 1945, Japan was required to return all territories previously taken from China.


This suggests that the Chinese have a strong case. But Chinese supporters do themselves a disservice by unnecessarily including Ming period (1368-1644) references. A commonly cited Ming record states, "Diaoyu Yu is a small island of Xiaodong [Taiwan]." The problem is that Taiwan did not become Chinese territory until 1683.


So instead of proving the islands belonged to Ming China, this historical record proves the opposite. The Chinese should recognize that records from the Qing Dynasty alone are sufficient to demonstrate Chinese ownership. Chinese envoy records place the islands within the "border that separates Chinese and foreign lands," with official gazetteers further recording "Diaoyu Island accommodates ten or more large ships" and placing it under the jurisdiction of Taiwan.


At a time when the world needs the Chinese and the Japanese to put aside differences and collaborate on common areas of interest, Governor Ishihara's actions are provocative and irresponsible. There are established means for resolving territorial disputes, such as the International Court of Justice. If Japan is confident of its claim, let its merits determine the outcome.


Mr. Shaw is a fellow at the Research Center for International Legal Studies at Taipei's National Chengchi University. He is the author of two books on the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands dispute.


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