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Diaoyu: To whom do these eight islands belong?
manthusmichi  Updated: 2004-03-26 07:48

Eight small rocks. Many would barely call them islands. Yet these islands are at the heart of a heated debate in East Asia. The heart of the matter is sovereignty, more particularly, who has, or should have, sovereignty over these islets. The People's Republic of China, the Republic of China on Taiwan, and Japan all claim these islets as part of their territory. Whether you choose to call them the Senkaku islands, as do the Japanese, or refer to them by their Chinese name, the Diaoyu islands, one thing is clear: these eight islands rightfully belong to China.

A group of eight uninhabited, rocky outcroppings in the East China Sea, the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands lie 120 miles north of Taiwan and 240 miles south of Okinawa. Geographically, they are small and remote. They are of little strategic significance. In economic terms, however, the Senkaku dispute is extremely volatile . Based on the policies issued during the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, each country is allowed to claim a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea boundary in addition to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. This proves particularly touchy when applied to the continental shelf beneath the East China Sea and around the Diaoyu islands -- it is claimed to contain anywhere from 10 billion to 100 billion barrels of oil. The waters around the islands are also especially rich fishing grounds. With these resources at stake, each country has thrown in all their cards to try to gain possession of these islands.

Japan currently has sovereignty over the islands. It claims are based on the Senkaku's inclusion in the Ryukyu island chain, which includes Okinawa. Japan seized the Ryukyu islands, Taiwan, and the Diaoyu islands before World War II. Although they were forced to return Taiwan to China after the war, the language of the treaties did little to mention the status of sovereignty of the Senkakus. The Japanese use the Okinawa Reversion Treaty as further proof of their sovereignty over the islands. The Senkaku islands were included in the group of islands which the United States returned to Japanese authority in 1972. The Okinawa Reversion Treaty is intentionally ambiguous when mentioning the Senkaku islands. The United States never mentions which country it recognizes as sovereign power, but still hands over the Senkaku and the Ryukyu islands to Japan. The Japanese say this treaty proves their sovereignty. Nevertheless, when compared to those of Japan, China's claims for sovereignty are much more sound.

China has based its argument for sovereignty over the Diaoyu islands on four key points: geography, history, usage, and law. Geographically, the islands are closer to Taiwan. In addition to the shorter distance between Taiwan and the Diaoyu islands, the ocean between them is only 200 feet deep. Conversely, the seafloor drops to more than 1000 feet in between Diaoyu and Okinawa. Clearly, the Diaoyu are part of the Chinese continental shelf.

China has historically viewed the Diaoyu as part of the Chinese province of Taiwan. (This supports both the PRC's and the Republic of China's claims.) The name "Diaoyutai" first appeared in Chinese imperial records in 1403 under the voyage of Shun Feng Hsiang Sung. By 1534, all the major islands in the Diaoyu group had been identified and named by Chen Kanin in his book Shih Liu-Chiu Lu, or Record of the Imperial Envoy to Ryukyu. The Chinese continued to use these islands and considered them part of their kingdom. Chen Kanin's Record of the Imperial Envoy to Ryukyu helps explain the Diaoyu's position in relation to the Ryukyus. The Ryukyus were an independent kingdom up until their annexation by Japan during the late nineteenth century, and they regularly received envoys from the Chinese court on the mainland. These envoys used the Diaoyu as navigational markers during the China-to-Ryukyu voyages. Chen Kanin, sent by the Ming Emperor in 1534, wrote that the Ryukyu natives on board his vessel said nothing about reaching home until the boat neared Kume Island, further north from the Diaoyu. Nowhere in Chinese records are the Diaoyu considered the territory of Ryukyu.

It is not until the age of imperialism that things begin to get complicated historically. Western ideas flow into East Asia, Japan rapidly modernizes, and begins practicing its own imperialism. Japan annexes the Ryukyus, and aims for parts of Chinese territory. The Economist sums up this period quite well: The [Diaoyu] islands de facto became part of Japan when Japan seized all of Taiwan in 1895, and the Chinese argue that they became de jure part of China in 1945 when Japan surrendered at the end of the second world war. At that time China was ruled by Chian Kai-shek's Kuomintang government, which four years later fled to Taiwan to escape the victorious communists, hence the rival claims today from governments in both Beijing and Taipei to represent all China. The reality is that in 1945 the Americans took over the islands and returned them, along with Okinawa, to Japan in 1972, a year after the mainland Chinese government had laid formal claim to the islands (Senkaku Islands: A Sporting Effort). Although it reads like a complex soap-opera plot, this history created real problems that still exist today. Japan still holds sovereignty over the Diaoyu, and China refuses to surrender any part of its traditional territory. Still, historical records point to China's legitimate claim to sovereignty over the islands -- they were wrongly ceded back to Japan in 1972.

The Chinese have been using the Diaoyu islands for centuries. Traditionally, it has been the Taiwanese who have utilized the resources of the islands. Favorable currents invited Taiwanese fisherman to sail around the islands, to plant their nets in its abundant waters, to use them as shelter during storms, and collect medicinal herbs on the rocky shores. Both the PRC and the Republic of China consider Taiwan to be historically linked to the mainland as a Chinese territory. Since Taiwanese have traditionally used the Diaoyu islands, China has the right to claim them as its territory.

Finally, China can prove that it rightfully possesses sovereignty over the Diaoyu islands in law. This point is mainly proven through Japan's consent to the Potsdam and Cairo Declarations in 1945. In these treatises, Japan agreed to return all territory it wrongfully and forcefully took from China. After Japan signed the Treaty of Peace between Japan and the Allied Powers in 1951, and the finalization of the Sino-Japanese Peace Treaty in 1952, Japanese annexation of the territory it acquired before World War II became void. This meant that Taiwan and "all islands appertaining" (Okinawa Reversion Treaty, 111) reverted to Chinese sovereignty. This included the Diaoyu.

Chinese arguments for sovereignty are solid, but several roadblocks still keep China from fully enforcing its claim. One of the most evident is the existence of two governments claiming to represent all of China. Both the PRC and the Republic of China on Taiwan claim sovereignty over the Diaoyu. The historical records prove that the Diaoyu are Chinese territory, but which Chinese government should hold sovereignty? Another problem arose from United States involvement. After World War II, the US Occupation Forces incorporated the Diaoyu into the occupied territory of Okinawa. They set up a missile firing range at the Diaoyu, and used it periodically. When it came to returning Okinawa to Japan in 1972, the US government included the Diaoyu in the package. Thus, sovereignty over the Diaoyu was given to Japan when it rightfully belonged to China through the Potsdam and Cairo Declarations.

During the 1970s, for the sake of regional stability and good foreign relations, China and Japan agreed to set aside the dispute. The PRC sought bilateral relations with Japan after its fallout with the USSR. The two countries underplayed their true feelings about the Diaoyu until several major outbursts occurred a few years ago. In 1996, when the Japanese government was considering officially recognizing a makeshift aluminum lighthouse erected on the main Diaoyu island by an Japanese extreme rightist group, the Chinese governments became infuriated. When a Japanese flag was raised from the lighthouse, the situation worsened. Anti-Japanese demonstrations ensued in front of Japanese embassies, consulates, and businesses in Beijing and Hong Kong. Flotillas of Chinese and Taiwanese ships went to the Diaoyu to plant their nations' flags, and reclaim their sovereignty over the islands. On several occasions, the Japanese have sent armed Self Defense Force ships to the islands to drive off fisherman, activists, and reporters. China has seen this as an all-to-real harbinger of Japan's remilitarization -- a scenario which the Chinese government, and many people in East Asia, greatly fear. The Chinese still vividly recall the Rape of Nanking and other atrocities they suffered under the Japanese invasion forces during World War II. Japanese remilitarization terrifies the Chinese, and the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute brings this issue into the spotlight.

Chinese the world over are using the Diaoyu island dispute as a unifying campaign. In 1996, even with uncertainties about the future of their own democracy after the handover in 1997, Hong Kong was filled with activists supporting the PRC's claims to the islands. Taiwan also sided with the PRC, demanding that Japan return what was rightfully Chinese territory. Even Chinese groups in America actively voiced their distrust of the Japanese and support for China's claims to the islands. Despite the diverse circumstances in which many of the ethnic Chinese are living and working around the world, "belief in China's ownership of the islands transcends ideology" (Kang ). That same year, the death of Hong Kong activist David Chan inspired further unity among the world's Chinese. He drowned while trying to plant Chinese and Taiwanese flags on one of the rocky Diaoyu islands. Japanese patrol boats had stopped his flotilla, so he jumped into the churning sea. The dispute claimed its first victim -- a Chinese. Candlelight vigils were held in Hong Kong and Los Angeles. Chan's death was used as a rallying point.

Not every Chinese supports the PRC. The PRC's actions in regards to the Diaoyu islands are questioned by many, particularly those closely involved in PRC policies. Some mainland Chinese feel the PRC is not taking a strong enough stand. They wonder why the PRC is so harsh on domestic issues but idly sits by while a foreign power encroaches on Chinese territory. They think that the PRC should use action, like the missile practices in the Taiwan Straits the PRC used to influence Taiwanese elections in the mid-1990s. Chinese in Taiwan sometimes feel that the PRC is using the Diaoyu issue to place further pressure on Taiwan's return to the mainland. The PRC is not entirely trusted.

Even if the motives of the PRC are put to scrutiny, the evidence in the Diaoyu island dispute undeniably points to China as the legitimate sovereign of these eight rocks in the East China Sea. With that acknowledgement should come the rights and privileges associated with these islands, most notably the oil and natural gas lying under the continental shelf surrounding the Diaoyu islands. China has solid arguments grounded in ancient texts, tradition, and simple geography, while Japan bases its claim on the language, and quite often ambiguity, of international treaties. Whether the Diaoyu islands are returned to the PRC or the Republic of China, the world cannot keep ignoring the legitimate claims these two governments have presented. They have successfully proven that the Diaoyu are historically Chinese territory, and that they were wrongfully taken by the Japanese, and then the United States.

The above content represents the view of the author only.
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