The Origins and Evolution of the Sovereignty Dispute over the Diaoyu Islands

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 The sovereignty dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands is a historical problem whose origins can be traced back to Japanese expansionism toward the end of the 19th century. The governments of both China and Japan face the important question of how the Diaoyu Islands dispute should be resolved.

 I. The Diaoyu Islands are an inherent part of Chinese territory

 The Diaoyu Islands are an archipelago located in the East China Sea. They are located due east of Fujian Province and to the northeast of Taiwan. The group consists of Diaoyu Dao, Huangwei Yu, Chiwei Yu, Nanxiao Dao, Beixiao Dao, and several ledges, and has a total area of approximately 6.5 square kilometers. The Diaoyu Islands are named after the largest island in the group, Diaoyu Dao, which has an area of 4.3 square kilometers. The Diaoyu Islands have no permanent residents.

 The Diaoyu Islands have been an inherent part of China since ancient times. The islands were administered by Fujian Province during the Ming Dynasty, and were later placed under the jurisdiction of Taiwan in the early years of the Qing Dynasty. The first historical reference to the Diaoyu Islands can be found in the book Fair Winds for Escort, which dates back to the first year of Yongle Reign of the Ming Dynasty (1403). Reference to the Diaoyu Islands can also be found in the 1534 book Records of the Imperial Mission to Ryūkyū, which gives a full account of a nautical voyage made by Chen Kan, the 11th investiture envoy of the Ming Dynasty, to confer the ruler of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū with an imperial edict. This serves as further proof that the Chinese were the first to discover the Diaoyu Islands. Ming Dynasty maps of China dating back as far as 1561 clearly show that the Diaoyu Islands were a part of Fujian Province’s maritime defense zone. Moreover, the Re-engraved Records of the Imperial Mission to Ryūkyū, which was written by investiture envoy Guo Rulin in 1562, also contains evidence of China’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands during the Ming Dynasty. The records clearly prove that China regarded Chiwei Yu (then called Chiyu), the closest of the Diaoyu Islands to Ryūkyū, as a visual marker of the borderline dividing the territories of China and Ryūkyū.

 By the Qing Dynasty, it was common knowledge among Chinese seafarers that the trough to the south of the Diaoyu Islands represented the border between China and Ryūkyū. The Annals of Zhongshan give a clearer account of the route taken by Xu Baoguang, an envoy of the Emperor Kangxi, on a diplomatic mission to Ryūkyū in 1719. According to the Annals, the mission set sail from Fujian Province, followed a northward course past the Huaping, Pengjia and Diaoyu Islands, and finally arrived at Kumi Hill (Kume-Jima) via Chiwei Yu. The Annals also contain a quote from a senior scholar on Ryūkyū who describes Kumi Hill (Kume-Jima) as “the defensive hill situated on the southwest border of Ryūkyū.” These historical records offer clear proof that the Ming and Qing governments regarded the Diaoyu Islands as Chinese territory and that the islands had been integrated as a part of China’s maritime defense zone.

 Evidence to support the assertion that the Diaoyu Islands are Chinese inherent territory can also be found in historical documents originating from Japan. An example is the “Map of the Three Provinces of Ryūkyū and the Thirty-Six Islands” which appears in the Illustrated Description of Three Countries written by noted Japanese scholar Hayashi Shihei in 1785. The map, which is based on the Annals of Zhongshan, refers to the Diaoyu Islands using the Chinese name “Diaoyutai” (literally “angling platform”). In the map, the Diaoyu Islands are marked in pale red along with China’s provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, while Kumi Island and Ryūkyū are both marked in beige. In fact, no independent reference to the Diaoyu Islands can be found in Japanese literature prior to the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Before that, the terms used in Japanese maps and historical records to refer to the islands, such as the Diaoyu Islands, or Yudiao Islands, were actually borrowed from Chinese literature. The Diaoyu Islands were referred to by their Chinese names in both maps and official documents from Japan in the past. According to incomplete statistics, the Japanese name “Senkaku Islands” appears in only one-third of the 21 maps and encyclopedias published by Japan from 1935 to 1970, while in some cases, the Chinese name “Yudiao Islands” can be found.

 On the basis of these conclusive historical facts, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China issued a formal statement in December 1971 asserting China’s sovereignty over Diaoyu Dao, Huangwei Yu, Chiwei Yu, Nanxiao Dao and Beixiao Dao as surrounding islands of Taiwan. Much like Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands have been an inseparable part of Chinese territory since ancient times.

 II. The Japanese stole the Diaoyu Islands from China

 The Japanese did not genuinely encounter the Diaoyu Islands until Ryūkyū was annexed and renamed Okinawa County in 1879. In 1884, a resident of Fukuoka County named Tatsushiro Koga sought permission from the Japanese government to develop the Diaoyu Islands for the purpose of collecting albatross feathers. This is the earliest historical record that pertains to a Japanese discovery of the Diaoyu Islands. On these grounds, the Japanese government claims that the Diaoyu Islands were “terra nullius” at the time, arguing that the islands were possessed by Japan first and therefore should not be regarded as part of the territories captured from China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. However, this claim is contradicted by Japan’s own official archives. Volume 18 of The Japanese Diplomatic Documents states that after the annexation of Ryūkyū, the Japanese government secretly commissioned three surveys of the Diaoyu Islands in 1885, which it intended to use as a pretext for the erection of territorial markers on the islands. However, the surveys found that the islands actually matched descriptions of Diaoyutai, Huangwei Yu and Chiwei Yu as recorded in the Annals of Zhongshan, and concluded that the matter “involved negotiations with the Qing Dynasty over the jurisdiction of the islands.” This is proof that the Japanese government at that time knew that the Diaoyu Islands were not “terra nullius,” and were aware, at the very least, that the islands were the subject of a possible territorial dispute with China.

 In January 1895, realizing that the Qing government was on the brink of defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese government passed a cabinet decision which formally incorporated the Diaoyu Islands into its territory. This was followed by the secret erection of territorial markers on the islands. In April of the same year, Japan forced the Qing government to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki, seizing control of Taiwan and its surrounding islands, including the Diaoyu Islands. In 1900, Japan began referring to the Diaoyu Islands using the Japanese name the “Senkaku Islands,” but interestingly, this name was actually translated from the English name for the islands: The Pinnacle Islands.

 According to the provisions of the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Proclamation, the Diaoyu Islands should have been returned to China as surrounding islands of Taiwan following Japan’s surrender in 1945. However, Okinawa was put under the trusteeship of the United States after the Second World War, and the Diaoyu Islands were subsequently incorporated into Okinawa under the terms of the so-called “San Francisco Peace Treaty” of 1951. In response, the Chinese government issued a statement at that time calling the San Francisco Peace Treaty illegal and invalid on the grounds that it was signed in the absence of the People’s Republic of China.

 With the signing of the Okinawa Reversion Agreement between Japan and the United States in 1971, which saw the return of Okinawa to Japanese control, the Diaoyu Islands were illicitly included among the “areas to be returned to Japan.” Faced with strong protests from the Chinese government over the deal, the US government stated that the return of administrative rights over Okinawa had no bearing on the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands whatsoever. In spite of this, it is not difficult to see that the United States was content to sow the seeds of conflict between China and Japan in order to seek its own strategic interests.

 III. The sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands viewed from the perspective of international law

 According to the principle of first possession in international law, which dictates that the discovery of a territory equates to ownership thereof, sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands clearly belongs to China. As previously mentioned, China discovered and named the Diaoyu Islands in the 15th century at the very latest. This is a historic fact that is universally recognized by the governments of both China and Japan and among academic circles in both nations. Therefore, according to international law, the Diaoyu Islands became Chinese territory in the 15th century. During the several hundred years that followed, the Ming and Qing dynasties exercised rule over the Diaoyu Islands as a part of China’s territory, and China continued to employ effective rule over the Diaoyu Islands until they were forcefully occupied by Japan. As such, China remains their sole legal owner. Also, it must be emphasized that the principle of first possession in international law only applies to territories that have no owner. However, before being seized by Japan in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, the Diaoyu Islands were a part of the Qing Dynasty, and although they were uninhabited at that time, they were absolutely not “terra nullius.” Therefore, Japan’s allegation that the islands were terra nullius when it took possession of them is totally groundless, and there is no legal prerequisite to support Japan’s claim to sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands.

 Moreover, the argument that Japan obtained sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands according to the principle of positive prescription in international law is equally lacking in basis. According to the relevant provisions in international law, where a territory has been continuously and effectively occupied, controlled and administered by a country for a certain period of time, the country in question will be entitled to acquire sovereignty over that territory, provided that no protest or opposition has been voiced by any other country. However, Japan had never exercised any “effective rule” over the Diaoyu Islands prior to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. Moreover, after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, Taiwan and all of its surrounding islands were seized by Japan, which would make Japan’s acquisition of sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands through the “exercise of effective rule through the people” totally unnecessary. In particular, if Japan wanted to acquire sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands according to the principle of positive prescription, the prerequisite would be the long-term silence of China over the matter. But, in reality, both China’s central government and the local authorities in Taiwan have long maintained a firm, unequivocal and consistent stance on the ownership of the Diaoyu Islands. China’s protests have, in effect, interrupted the period of effective rule that Japan would require in order to acquire the islands on the basis of “long-term, continuous and effective government.” Therefore, China’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands is totally undisputable, regardless of whether the issue is viewed from the perspective of history or international law.

 The dispute over the Diaoyu Islands is one of the most important factors affecting the development of relations between China and Japan at present. Putting the greater interest first, the Chinese government has called for handling the Diaoyu Islands issue by engaging in peaceful consultations, shelving differences and seeking joint development. If Japan is able to make a genuine response to these calls, Sino-Japanese relations are sure to benefit as a result. As major Asian counties, both China and Japan stand to gain from mutual harmony, while conflict between the two will only serve to harm both sides. Only when China and Japan stand together hand in hand will Asia have bright prospects for the future.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 20, 2010)


Note: Author: Professor at the School of International Studies, Director of the East Asia Research Center, Renmin University of China

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