China Will Never Allow Japan to Seize the Diaoyu Islands

From: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2013-02-19 10:47
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Relations between China and Japan have been severely tainted owing to a territorial dispute between the countries over the Diaoyu Islands. The direct cause was an announcement made by the Japanese government on September 10, 2012, that it would “purchase” Diaoyu Island and the neighboring Nanxiao Island and Beixiao Island and implement what it called “nationalization.” These acts by the Japanese government are absolutely illegal, invalid, and futile. The Diaoyu Islands have always been a part of China—a fact that is evidenced not only by history, but also by law. No unilateral action taken by the Japanese government can possibly change the fact that the Diaoyu Islands belong to China.

I. History dictates that the Diaoyu Islands are part of China

The Diaoyu Islands were never a part of ancient Ryukyu, nor do they belong to Japan. They are an inherent part of China’s territory, first discovered, named, documented, and exploited by the Chinese. 

One of the earliest surviving references to the Diaoyu Islands can be found in the book Voyage with a Tail Wind, which was written during the Ming Dynasty. This book contains a record of maritime routes, as well as the various islands along those routes, that were confirmed during the Ming times after the Ming government lifted its ban on maritime trade in 1403 (the first year of the reign of the Yongle Emperor). Present among these islands were Diaoyu Islet and Chikan Islet, which we know today as Diaoyu Island and Chiwei Islet.

In 1372 (the 5th year of the reign of the Hongwu Emperor of the Ming Dynasty), the emperor dispatched an imperial envoy named Yang Zai to the kingdom of Ryukyu. In return, Satto, the king of Ryukyu, sent his younger brother to pay tribute to the Hongwu Emperor in the company of Yang Zai. With this, Ryukyu became a vassal state of China, and two countries began what would be five centuries of friendly relations. China sent imperial envoys to confer official titles on newly crowned kings of Ryukyu on a total of 24 occasions, with the Diaoyu Islands serving as navigation markers on each of these voyages to Ryukyu. Given that the Ryukyuans were unfamiliar with maritime routes between the two countries, China sent Ryukyu “36 experienced sailors from Fujian to facilitate contact” in the 25th year of the reign of the Hongwu Emperor. This is evidence that the Chinese were first people to plot a route to Ryukyu via the Diaoyu Islands.

In 1561(the 40th year of the reign of the Jiajing Emperor of the Ming Dynasty), Guo Rulin, an imperial envoy who travelled to Ryukyu, documented his journey to the kingdom in Records of the Imperial Title-Conferring Envoys to Ryukyu: “On the first day of the fifth month (leap month), we passed Diaoyu Islet, and on the third day arrived at Chiyu Islet, the dividing line with Ryukyu.” This is clear evidence that Chiwei Islet was regarded as the boundary line between China and Ryukyu.

Moreover, China began to include the Diaoyu Islands in its coastal defense zone in the early years of the Ming Dynasty, carrying out effective administration and offshore patrols to guard against raids by Japanese pirates. According to the History of Ming, in 1373 (the 6th year of the reign of the Hongwu Emperor), Zhang He, a coastal defense officer stationed in Fuzhou, led an offshore patrol mission to expel Japanese pirates from the waters of Niushanyang in Fujian Province, pursuing them as far as the Ryukyu Trench. This indicates that in the early years of the Ming Dynasty, “Min Hai” (the sea of Fujian), where the Diaoyu Islands were located, had already been incorporated into China’s coastal defense zone, which extended as far as the Ryukyu Trench (today’s Okinawa Trough) to the west of Kume Island. In 1561 (the 40th year of the reign of the Jiajing Emperor), An Illustrated Compendium on Maritime Security, compiled by Hu Zongxian and Zheng Ruozeng, also showed the Diaoyu Islands as being a part of Fujian’s coastal defense zone in a map entitled the “Map of Coastal Mountains and Sands.” 

In 1722 (the 61st year of the reign of the Kangxi Emperor), Huang Shujing, an official of the Qing government who toured Taiwan, wrote a first-hand account of China’s patrols around the Diaoyu Islands in A Tour of Duty in the Taiwan Strait: “In the ocean north of the island (Taiwan), there is an island named Diaoyu Tai which is able to berth over ten large ships. Sampans are able to enter the steep and rugged Xuepolan.” The word “Xuepolan” refers to the islands of Nanxiao and Beixiao that lay adjacent to Diaoyu Island. The account also stated that submerged corals and dangerous reefs made the waters around Diaoyu Island difficult for patrol ships to navigate, with the only way of entering the harbor being to wait until high tide. The “harbor” mentioned here refers to a long, narrow man-made harbor that has been physically cut out of Diaoyu Island to provide access from the shore. There is no doubt that this was left behind by the Chinese.

Chinese marine surveillance ship No.15 arrives at the Diaoyu Islands on September 14, 2012 to patrol the waters surrounding Diaoyu Island and the neighboring islets. The purpose of the patrol is to safeguard China’s territorial rights. / Photo by Xinhua reporter Zhang Jiansong

In the map “Mirror of Sea Routes,” which is found in the Review of Japan that Zheng Shungong complied in 1556 (the 35th year of the reign of the Jiajing Emperor) after having been commissioned by the Ming government to tour Japan, not only is Diaoyu Islet present, but there is also an annotation reading “Diaoyu Islet is a small islet of Xiaodong.” At that time “Xiaodong” was another name for Taiwan. This proves that at that time, China had already concluded that the Diaoyu Islands were geographically a part of Taiwan. In the “Territorial Map of Qing” found in the Territorial World Map of the Imperial Court compiled in 1863, the Diaoyu Islands were marked to the northeast of Taiwan. Moreover, the Diaoyu Islands were listed under the jurisdiction of Gamalanting, Taiwan (now known as Yilan County) in the Re-compiled General Annals of Fujian of 1871, according to A Tour of Duty in the Taiwan Strait. It may be said that responsibility for the coastal defense of the Diaoyu Islands was assumed by the Chinese territory of Taiwan from that point on. 

II. Why Japan’s occupation of the Diaoyu Islands is illegal and invalid according to international law 

Japan’s so-called basis in international law for claiming that the “Senkaku Islands” (the Diaoyu Islands) are an “inherent part of its territory” is that it found no trace of the rule of the Qing government on these islands after repeated surveys in 1885, and thus acquired the islands as “terra nullius” in line with the principle of “occupation,” with its cabinet deciding to “incorporate” the islands in the territory of Okinawa on January 14, 1895.

It must first be pointed out that Okinawa is not an inherent territory of Japan, but was formerly the Kingdom of Ryukyu, whose history spanned more than 500 years. The Kingdom of Ryukyu consisted of 36 islands, but the Diaoyu Islands were never among them. Japan invaded Ryukyu for the first time in 1609. In 1872, Ryukyu was turned into a tributary kingdom of Japan, and renamed Ryukyu Han (Ryukyu fief). In 1879, Japan reorganized Ryukyu Han as Okinawa Prefecture, completing the total annexation of Ryukyu. Therefore, not even Okinawa can be regarded as an inherent territory of Japan, let alone the Diaoyu Islands.

The essential precondition for territorial acquisition under the “occupation” principle in international law is the peaceful occupation of terra nullius in an open manner. However, the Diaoyu Islands had ceased to be terra nullius long before Japan’s so-called “discovery” of them in 1884, having already been incorporated into China’s territory. The book Illustrated Outline of the Three Countries, written by the Sendai scholar Hayashi Shihei in 1785, contains the earliest reference to the Diaoyu Islands in Japanese literature. In the book, the Diaoyu Islands are shown as being separate from the three provinces and 36 islands of Ryukyu, and are marked in the same color used for the Chinese mainland, suggesting that the islands were a part of China’s territory. According to an account given in Volume 18 of the Japan Diplomatic Documents, the Meiji government dispatched three secret fact-finding missions to the islands between September and November, 1885, only to conclude that these “uninhabited islands” (not “terra nullius”) were in fact the islands of Diaoyu Tai, Huangwei and Chiwei that had been recorded in Records of Messages from Chong-shan by Xu Baoguang, a deputy title-conferring envoy to Ryukyu, and that were well known to the envoy ships of the Qing Dynasty, who had given them names and used them as navigation markers on their voyages to Ryukyu. Therefore, Japan had doubts as to whether or not sovereignty markers should be erected when carrying out the surveys.

On September 6, 1885 (the 28th day of the 7th month in the 11th year of the reign of the Guangxu Emperor of the Qing Dynasty), the Chinese newspaper Shen-pao (Shanghai News) carried a report entitled “An Alarm on the Taiwan Strait,” which read: “Recently, Japanese flags have been seen on the islands to the northeast of Taiwan, revealing Japan’s intention to occupy these islands.” Consequently, a secret report compiled by the Japanese government contained the following passage: “Qing newspapers have reported Japan’s intention to occupy the islands near Taiwan. Suspicious of Japan’s intentions, they have repeatedly urged the Qing government to take heed.” “At present, any open move to place sovereignty markers is bound to alert the Qing imperial court. Therefore, it is advisable not to go beyond field surveys and detailed reports on the shapes of the bays, the landform, and other resources for future development at this time. In the meantime, we will wait for a better opportunity to engage in such activities as erecting sovereignty markers and proceeding with the development of the islands.” On May 12, 1894, two months before the Sino-Japanese War broke out, the secret fact-finding missions to the Diaoyu Islands that were conducted by Okinawa Prefecture came to a final conclusion: “Given that there have been no subsequent field surveys since 1885, it is difficult to give a precise report. There are no written records or accounts in folklore proving that these islands belong to our country.”

In July 1894, Japan started the First Sino-Japanese War. On January 14, 1895, before the war had even ended, the Meiji government passed a secret “cabinet resolution” providing for the occupation of the Diaoyu Islands. On April 17 that year, China was forced to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki, ceding to Japan the island of Taiwan and all of its outlying islands, which naturally included the Diaoyu Islands. During the 50 years that passed from then until Japan’s surrender in 1945, Japan exercised colonial rule over Taiwan, and with it, the Diaoyu Islands. It was not until the year 1933, during Japan’s invasion of China, that Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs began to refer to its illegal occupation of the Diaoyu Islands as the acquisition of “terra nullius” under the so-called principle of “occupation.” This sheer lie only further exposes Japan’s intentions to steal the Diaoyu Islands.

III. Japan’s so-called “nationalization” of the Diaoyu Islands constitutes a grave challenge to the post-war international order

In 1945, Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration and announced its surrender. Article 8 of the declaration demanded that Japan carry out the terms of the Cairo Declaration of 1943 by returning all of the territories that it had stolen from China, including Manchuria, Formosa (Taiwan) and the Pescadores. In addition, Japan was to be expelled from all other territories which it had seized through violence or greed. Accordingly, the Diaoyu Islands, being outlying islands of Taiwan, were returned to China in the eyes of international law.

However, with China split between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait due to civil war, the US capitalized on its occupation of Japan to pass the biased Treaty of San Francisco of 1951, which placed the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) under its trusteeship. Zhou Enlai, the then Premier and Foreign Minister of China, issued three statements expressing opposition to the treaty. In June 1971, the US and Japan signed the Okinawa Reversion Agreement, illegally placing the Diaoyu Islands under the jurisdiction of Japan. This agreement prompted a strong statement of opposition from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which reiterated that “Diaoyu Island, Huangwei Islet, Chiwei Islet, Nanxiao Island, and Beixiao Island are all islands of Taiwan. Much like Taiwan, these islands are an inseparable part of China.” Consequently, the US had no choice but to state that it had only handed the administrative rights over the Diaoyu Islands to Japan, and that the US would take no position in regard to sovereignty over the islands, which should be resolved through dialogue and negotiation between China and Japan. The sovereignty dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands has gone on ever since.

In September 1972, when negotiations were being held for the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations, the leaders of the two countries acted in the greater interest of China and Japan by putting aside the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands and reaching an important understanding on achieving the normalization of relations first. The China-Japan Joint Communiqué issued by the two countries reads: “The Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious damage that Japan caused in the past to the Chinese people through war, and deeply reproaches itself.” In regard to the issue of Taiwan, the document reads: “The Government of the People’s Republic of China reiterates that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China. The Government of Japan fully understands and respects the position of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, and it firmly maintains its stand under Article 8 of the Potsdam Declaration.” In August 1978, when the negotiations for the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship were taking place, the two countries once again came to a consensus and political tacit understanding on setting aside the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands.

In summary, the Potsdam Declaration and the Cairo Declaration, both accepted by Japan in 1945, constitute the basis of the post-war international order and the norms of international law. The history of Japan’s secret occupation of the Diaoyu Islands during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), as well as its subsequent colonial rule of Taiwan, and with it the Diaoyu Islands under the unequal Treaty of Shimonoseki, has come to an end. Japan’s attempts to use the so-called Treaty of San Francisco and the Okinawa Reversion Agreement as the legal basis for its occupation of Chinese territory are absolutely groundless. At present, the Japanese authorities lack a correct historical understanding of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, as well as other Japanese acts of aggression and expansion. With absolutely no hint of remorse, they are attempting to restore the historical heritage of the Meiji government’s colonial occupation of China’s Diaoyu Islands through a so-called act of “nationalization,” threatening to rally the support of the whole country and even dispatch their Self-Defense Forces. This not only represents contempt for the post-war arrangements made for Japan and the international order as defined by international legal documents such as the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Declaration, but also constitutes the wanton trampling of the principles and spirit of the China-Japan Joint Communiqué and the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship.

IV. Japan must make sensible choices in order to uphold the greater interests of relations between China and Japan

The recent escalation in the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands is entirely attributable to the Japanese authorities. For a long period of time, China has treated Japan’s so-called “actual control” over the Diaoyu Islands with the greatest of restraint, standing by the important understandings reached between prior generations of Chinese and Japanese leaders with regard to “leaving the issue of the Diaoyu Islands to be resolved later.” However, Japan’s provocative act of “purchasing” the Diaoyu Islands has changed the status quo and caused the situation to worsen. During its 14-year war of aggression against China, Japan committed heinous crimes against the Chinese people. Despite this, China demonstrated great virtue with regard to the issue of reparations after the war. However, not only has Japan always shown a lack of remorse over its war crimes, even now it is brazenly provoking a dispute over territorial sovereignty in a futile attempt to overturn the post-war international order and restore the historical heritage of its colonial rule. How can such actions not provoke strong indignation from the Chinese people? This is the intrinsic logic behind the issue, and both the Chinese and Japanese people as well as the international community should be aware of it.

Japan’s actions over the Diaoyu Islands issue are by no means accidental, and the political trends that they reflect warrant the vigilance of the international community. Where is Japan going? Can we be at peace of mind over Japan’s future? The perverse acts of the Japanese authorities will result in China taking the necessary precautions and countermeasures. It is those extremely irresponsible people in the Japanese leadership that must bear sole responsibility for all consequences that relations between China and Japan suffer. The majority of Japanese people are peace-loving and willing to maintain friendly ties with China. However, for a long time many people in Japan have only been able to hear the one-sided story of the Japanese government, and are not fully aware of the facts surrounding the Diaoyu Islands issue. At present Japan has come to an important historical crossroads: Will it persist in its ways, pushing relations between China and Japan into a bottomless abyss, or will it take immediate steps to adopt a new course, seeking a resolution that both sides can accept by engaging in diplomatic negotiations on the basis of the political understanding once reached between the two countries? It all depends on the decision that the Japanese government makes.

The days when the Chinese people could be trodden on by other countries are gone forever. The stance of the Chinese government and people on the safeguarding of territorial sovereignty is resolute, and absolutely no concession will be made. The Japanese leadership must be fully aware of the severity of the situation. They must be careful not to misjudge the situation and they must refrain from clinging obstinately to their ways; otherwise, they will be to blame for the damage that is caused to relations between China and Japan.


(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.19, 2012)
Author: Vice Director of the Institute of Modern International Relations, Tsinghua University

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