Much Ado over Small Islands: The Sino-Japanese Confrontation over Senkaku/Diaoyu1


More than six decades from the San Francisco Treaty that purportedly resolved the Asia-Pacific War and created a system of peace, East Asia in 2013 remains troubled by the question of sovereignty over a group of tiny, uninhabited islands. The governments of Japan, China, and Taiwan all covet and claim sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

These tiny islands, together with other scattered outcroppings across the Western Pacific, assume today some of the weight that attached almost a century ago to the vast domain of Northeast China (“Manchuria”), with comparable potential to plunge the region into conflict. If the countries of the region are to transcend the 19th and 20th century eras of Japanese imperialism and US Cold War hegemony and construct a 21st century of peace, cooperation, and prosperity, the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue must somehow first be addressed.

1. The Long View

The islands known in Japanese as Senkaku and in Chinese as Diaoyu are little more than rocks in the ocean, but they are rocks on which there is a real prospect of peace and cooperation in the region foundering. It is a problem that I first addressed just over 40 years ago, and on which I have published other occasional essays more recently.2

The Senkaku/Diaoyu problem calls to mind the research on which I once engaged on the “Manchurian problem,” which also arose over how to draw a line dividing “our” from “your” territory, a life-line that absolutely had to be protected. Because the line early 20th century Japan then drew was unacceptable to China, the dispute over it led in due course to the catastrophe of war. “Senkaku” is of course not to be compared to the vast domains that were then at stake in “Manchuria,” but its importance far outweighs its barren and unpopulated rocks and focuses similarly passionate, uncompromising sentiment.

While economic integration in East Asia proceeds by leaps and bounds and popular culture flows freely, the region has little sense of shared history, identity or direction and it is still framed by the security architecture of the Cold War. The difficulty is compounded by the process of gradual, but fundamental, shift in the power balance that prevailed throughout the 20th century. China rises and Japan declines, a phenomenon that may be encapsulated in a single set of statistics. The Japan that as proportion of global GDP was 15 per cent in 1990 fell below 10 per cent in 2008 and has been projected to fall to 6 per cent in 2030 and 3.2 per cent in 2060, while the China that was 2 per cent in 1990 is predicted to reach 25 per cent in 2030 and 27.8 per cent in 2060.3 It is that shift in relative weight, perhaps more than anything that disturbs Japan. Islands that in themselves are trivial come to carry heavy symbolic weight.

In the long historical perspective, it is possible to view the past millennium in Asia as a sequence of more-or-less hegemonic orders: the Pax Mongolica (1206 to 1368), the Chinese “Tribute” system or Pax Sinica of Ming and Qing dynasties (1368 to 1911), the short-lived Pax Nipponica (roughly 1931 to 1945), and the still-continuing Pax Americana (born with US victory in the Asia-Pacific War and enshrined with the San Francisco Treaty in effect from 1952). The last of these, however, entering upon its seventh decade shows signs of severe strain, not least because China is too great and too tied to all the major US alliance parties to be excluded or contained. President Obama may yet succeed in renewing and reinforcing the fabric of Pax Americana alliances, and thereby in maintaining its military and political pre-eminence under the Pacific Tilt doctrine declared early in 2012, but a very different possibility is occasionally to be glimpsed: a post-hegemonic order, a concert of states or commonwealth, a Pax Asia.

Looking towards such a future, then Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo agreed with China’s president Hu Jintao at their summit meeting in February 2008 that the East China Sea should be made a “Sea of Peace, Cooperation and Friendship,”4 and at the bilateral summit in September, 2009, a year and a half later, Hatoyama Yukio proposed that it be transformed into a “Sea of Fraternity” (Yuai no umi),5 to which Hu is said to have responded positively. Three months later, in the heyday of the newly elected Democratic Party government in Japan, Ozawa Ichiro led a, 600-strong, semi-official friendship mission to Beijing. That moment was the high point of a mood of empathetic cooperation. It pointed to a possible way forward, one in which sovereignty issues would be shelved and the development of resources resolved cooperatively (as indeed foreshadowed by several agreements reached and to some extent implemented during the early 21st century years), evolving gradually into some kind of regional community. The mood did not last long, however, and by 2013 it seemed an age away.

2. What are These Islands and What is Their Significance?

The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands group comprises basically five uninhabited islands, more correctly islets (plus several even smaller outcrops), known respectively under their Japanese and Chinese names as Uotsuri/Diaoyudao, Kita Kojima/Bei Xiaodao, Minami Kojima/Nan Xiaodao, Kuba/Huangwei and Taisho/Chiwei. The largest (Uotsuri/Diaoyu; literally “Fish-catch” in Japanese, “Catch-fish” in Chinese) is 4.3 square kilometres and the total area of all five just 6.3 square kilometres. The islands are spread over a wide area of sea, about 27 kilometres separating the core cluster of three islands (Uotsuri, Kita Kojima and Minami Kojima) from Kuba, and about 110 from Taisho.6 They are located in relatively shallow waters at the edge of the Chinese continental shelf, 330 kilometres east of the China mainland coast, 170 kilometres northeast of Taiwan, and about the same distance north of Yonaguni (or Ishigaki) islands in the Okinawa group, separated from the main Okinawan islands by a deep (maximum 2,940 metres)7 underwater trench known as the “Okinawa Trough” or in China as the “Sino-Ryukyu Trough.”

Chinese documents from the 14th century record and name the islands as important navigational points on the maritime route between coastal China (Foochow) and the Ryukyu kingdom capital at Shuri, especially necessary for tribute missions during Ming and Qing dynasties. China sent the Ryukyu kingdom ten such missions and Ryukyu dispatched 281 to the Chinese court in return between the 16th and 19th centuries. Ryukyuan ships heading farther afield, on trading missions to Southeast Asia, also almost certainly used this same route.8 Ownership, however, did not greatly concern anyone. The European state system with its Westphalian notions of sovereignty was an alien concept. It appears that nobody actually settled there.

Two late 19th century developments wrought decisive change. In 1879 the Meiji government forcibly extinguished the Ryukyu kingdom’s residual sovereignty (building upon the partial subjection accomplished by Satsuma following its invasion in 1609) and incorporated the Ryukyus (as Okinawa) within the Japanese state, unilaterally severing the Ryukyu’s membership in the Beijing-centred tribute system and bringing the modern, imperialist state system that would replace it closer to Senkaku/Diaoyu.

As China protested the Japanese state’s encroachments in the East China Sea, US president Grant played a role in attempting to mediate a Sino-Japanese settlement. What Japan most sought, however, was a comprehensive revision of the US-Japan Treaty that opened relations between the two countries in 1871. It wanted the same unequal treaty rights (“most favoured nation” status) in mainland China as were enjoyed by the established imperialist powers. In return it offered to split the Ryukyus: ceding the south-western islands of Miyako and the Yaeyama’s to China. China countered with a proposal for a three way split: the northern islands, including Amami, to Meiji Japan, the main island of Okinawa to become independent under a restored Ryukyu/Okinawa king, and the southwest islands ceded to China.9 Both proposals agreed that the Miyako and Yaeyama island groups, that is to say the Okinawan islands closest to the Senkaku/Diaoyu’s, should be China’s. A treaty in line with the Chinese proposal was drawn up early in 1881 but not actually adopted because of opposition at high levels within the Chinese government.10 Then pre-eminent Chinese leader Li Hongjiang is said to have objected that “Ryukyu is neither Chinese nor Japanese territory, but a sovereign state.”11 When China, one hundred and thirty-two years later, protested that there had never been an agreement between the two countries on the status of Okinawa, and urging that it be the subject of discussions, Japan and Okinawa itself were shocked, but it was stating a simple historical fact.12

The unilateral assimilation to Japan of Ryukyu as Okinawa in 1879 in no way affected the status of the tiny Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. But just five years later, in 1884, a Japanese merchant, Koga Tatsushiro, settled on Senkaku. Initiating a business in collecting albatross feathers and tortoise shells, he submitted a claim through the newly established Okinawa prefecture to have them declared Japanese territory on grounds of being unclaimed and unoccupied.

In other words, Koga’s 1884 Senkaku application related to territory that was of such little import to Japan that it had been ready just years earlier to cede it (and much more) to China as part of a frontier grand bargain. The Meiji government in Tokyo delayed a decision on this matter for a full ten years, fearful of rousing China’s suspicions at a time when it worried that China might enjoy naval supremacy. That anxiety only eased following the major battles in which it decisively defeated Qing China in the Sino-Japanese War, whereupon the Japanese cabinet resolved in January 1895 to accept the Koga proposal. Japan annexed two of the islands (Uotsuri and Kuba), as part of Yaeyama County, Okinawa prefecture. It then (1896) leased four (Uotsuri, Kota Kojima, Minami Kojima, and Kuba) to Koga on a thirty year, fee-less, basis, adopted the name “Senkaku Islands” (in 1900) as a translation of the name “Pinnacle Rocks” found on British naval charts, and in 1926 converted the four island lease to a freehold grant to the Koga family.13 The fifth island, Taisho/Chiwei, was never part of the Koga family domain, but was simply claimed by the Government of Japan in 1921.

The Japanese annexation was a diplomatic secret, not published until many years later in the post-war compilations of Japanese diplomatic records, and the “markers” authorized by the 1895 cabinet resolution were not actually set up on the islands until May 1969.14

Through the Japanese empire in East Asia from 1895, Koga maintained his business, expanding it to employ perhaps as many as 248 people (99 households) by around 1910,15 catching, drying, processing, and canning fish, only withdrawing around 1940, abandoning the islands under the shadow of war.

Asia then had much greater questions to worry about, and Senkaku was of interest to no one. In the immediate post-war years Japan’s Foreign Ministry made only brief reference to them, dismissing them as “uninhabited and of little importance.”16 China (Beijing)’s Foreign Ministry seems also to have had no interest in them. In a draft paper prepared in 1950, soon after the Chinese Communist party came to power, it referred simply to the islands by their Japanese name as “part of Okinawa.”17 Some doubt must remain on the status of this proposal until the actual document is published, but had it been implemented, and had Beijing actually been invited to San Francisco, such a stance might at least have informed the comprehensive discussions on territory that would have followed.

The question of Okinawa itself, raised by China in 2013 as still problematic and needing to be addressed in some arrangement between the two countries, was also seen as moot by US President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1943, he considered China’s claim to the Okinawan islands as a whole so strong that he twice asked Chinese president Chiang Kai-shek whether he would like to take possession of them in the eventual post-war settlement.18 Chiang, in a decision he is said to have later deeply regretted, declined.

In administering the Ryukyus from 1951 to 72, the US also assumed control of seas that included the Senkakus.19 However, in the negotiations over Okinawan reversion (1969-1972) it drew a line between the different sectors, transferring to Japan sovereignty over Ryukyu but only administrative control over Senkaku. Sovereignty was left unresolved, in implicit admission that the islands might be subject to competing claims. The United States has held strictly to that position to this day.

Why then, did the US split Senkaku from Ryukyu in 1972? Hara Kimie, Toyoshita Narahiko, and others, attribute the decision to Machiavellian US design. They believe it was explicit and deliberate. According to Hara, the US understood that the islands would function as a “wedge of containment” of China and that a “territorial dispute between Japan and China, especially over islands near Okinawa, would render the US military presence in Okinawa more acceptable to Japan.”20 According to Toyoshita, the US took a deliberately “vague” (aimai) attitude over territorial boundaries,21 sowing the seeds or sparks (hidane) of territorial conflict between China and Japan, and thereby ensuring Japan’s long-term dependence on the US and justifying the US base presence.22 For both, the implication is clear: the Senkaku/Diaoyu problem of today is the consequence of a US policy decision. Though conscious intent is necessarily difficult to prove, their hypothesis certainly offers a plausible explanation for the US shift of position.

The vague and unresolved “wedge/spark” formula of Senkaku/Diaoyu ownership, by ensuring ongoing friction in the Japan-China relationship also served as one of a set of keys locking Japan in place as a client or US-dependent state.23

The Senkaku/Diaoyu “problem” as it came to be known arose in the context of simultaneous developments at this time: the US shift of its position (marked most dramatically by the Nixon-led rapprochement with China), the sudden realization on all sides, following an ECAFE report on its 1968 investigation, that island ownership rights might carry potentially valuable resource rights to a sector of the East China Sea believed to be “the last remaining, richest, as yet unexploited depository of oil and natural gas,” the lodging of claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu group by both Japan on the one hand and ROC and PRC on the other; and the stirring of a significant international overseas Chinese movement to support the Chinese demand.24


3. The Shelf, 1972-2010

Subsequently, Japan and China paid attention to Senkaku/Diaoyu on two key occasions, in 1972 and 1978. When Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei raised the question to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai on the former occasion, Zhou replied that the matter should be shelved as opening it would complicate and delay the normalization process.25 Six years later, in Japan to negotiate a Peace and Friendship Treaty, Deng Xiaoping reiterated this “shelving” formula, preferring to leave it to “the next generation” to find sufficient wisdom to resolve it.26 For roughly 40 years a modus vivendi held: though occasional landings (by Chinese activists from a Hong Kong base and by Japanese rightists sailing from ports in Okinawa) took place, the two governments tacitly cooperated to prevent them.27

Today, the Japanese Foreign Ministry adopts the improbable position that there was no such “shelving” arrangement.28 While it seems clear there was no formal diplomatic document to such effect, however, the exchanges recorded above were not trivial. What seems likely is that both sides stated their respective positions but chose to avoid formal negotiations which might have delayed general settlement.29

One prominent Japanese scholar now accuses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of “inexcusable and outrageous” behaviour in having altered the Minutes of the Tanaka-Zhou meeting of 1972 and “burned and destroyed” those of the Sonoda-Deng meeting of 1978 lest either yield evidence prejudicial to the official case of undisputed Japanese sovereignty.30 In light of the recent revelation of the trashing of a vast cache of Foreign Ministry materials on the eve of Freedom of Information rules being introduced in 2001, Yabuki’s allegation cannot simply be dismissed.31

In two decisive steps, however, in 2010 and 2012, Japan moved to ensure that the shelf never be put back.32 In 2010, the Democratic Party of Japan’s government arrested the Chinese captain of a fishing ship in waters off Senkaku, insisting that there was “no room for doubt” that the islands were an integral part of Japanese territory, that there was no territorial dispute or diplomatic issue, and the Chinese vessel was simply in breach of Japanese law (interfering with officials conducting their duties). The fierce Chinese response caused Japan to back down and release the captain without pressing charges,33 but Japanese resolve hardened and China appears to have concluded that Japan had determined to set aside the “shelving” agreement. Mutual antagonism deepened steadily thereafter.

From China’s viewpoint, it was striking that Japan concentrated its diplomatic effort not on resolving a bilateral dispute over borders but on widening it to a security matter involving the United States, attaching its highest priority to securing an assurance from the US government that the islands were subject to Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty, the clause that authorizes the US to protect Japan in the case of an armed attack “in territories under the administration of Japan.” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accepted that position in October 2010,34 and in due course, under strong Japanese prompting, it was entered into the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2013 and approved by the Senate on 29 November 2012.35

That is to say the US continued to acknowledge the “administration of Japan over the Senkaku Islands” but took no position on the question of sovereignty.36 Although much was made of this, there was “nothing new” in it.37 It means that, while the United States had no view on which country should own the islands, or even what they should be called, it was ready to go to war to defend Japan’s claim to them. It is a position that Henry Kissinger (in April 1971) described as “nonsense.”38

As the confrontation intensified, the left-right political divide in Japan dissolved into an “all Japan” front, with a broad national consensus supporting the Japanese official story of its Senkaku rights, protesting China’s threat to Japan’s sovereign territory and insisting there was no dispute and that the security alliance with the US covered defence of the islands against any China challenge.

If September 2010 marked “shelf down,” in April 2012 it was as if the shelf supports were removed too. Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro announced to a conservative American think-tank audience in Washington, D.C. that his city was negotiating to buy the three privately owned islets of Uotsuri, Kita Kojima and Minami Kojima,39 in order, he said, to clarify public, Japanese governmental jurisdiction and remove any possible challenge to their sovereignty by China or Taiwan. His announcement – coupled with his calculated abuse of China (or “Shina,” the insulting, wartime appellation Ishihara deliberately chose to employ) – stirred a diplomatic storm.

Ishihara’s Tokyo Metropolitan Government began distributing a poster featuring a photograph of the three islets that it was concerned with and the message calling for the “courage” to say, “Japan’s islands are Japan’s territory.”40 It also published an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal asking for US support for its island purchasing plan, pointedly noting that the islands were “of indispensable geostrategic importance to US force projection,”41 leaving no room for doubt as to the direction in which the United States should project its force.

The summer of 2012 in East Asia was hot. Rival groups of activists challenged each other with acts of bravado. Vessels under various flags and representing various claims over the islands made or attempted to make visits, ratcheting up tension.

On 7 July, 75th anniversary of Japan’s launch of all-out war on China, Prime Minister Noda adopted the Ishihara cause and declared the national government would buy and “nationalize” the islands. 42 Later that same month he declared his readiness to deploy the Self-Defence Forces to defend them, 43 and in September he formally purchased them (for 20.5 billion yen, or ca. $26 million) and “nationalized” them, 44 declaring to the UN General Assembly that the islands were “intrinsic Japanese territory,” over which there was no dispute and could be no negotiation.45

Protest demonstrations followed in Hong Kong and cities and towns across China – cars were overturned, Japanese restaurant windows smashed, Japanese goods trashed, and exchanges of tour groups, students, and businesses suspended.


4. Abe – “Taking Back”

Abe Shinzo campaigned for the December 2012 lower house election under the overall slogan of “taking back the country.” He pledged not to yield one millimetre of Japan’s “inherent” territory of Senkaku,46 a matter on which there was no dispute, no room for discussion or negotiation. He wrote:

“What is called for in the Senkaku vicinity is not negotiation but physical force incapable of being misunderstood.”47

Abe’s close friend, education minister Shimomura Hakubun, was equally forthright. He referred to Senkaku as having been “stolen away” (an odd formulation when effective control was plainly in Japan’s hands).

“Right now,” he went on, “Japan is not functioning as a nation. … The 67 years since the end of World War ll have been a history of Japan’s destruction. Now is our only chance to remake the country.”48

Shimomura, and presumably the Abe government, evidently believed that to stand up to and refuse to negotiate with China was to “remake” Japan. When former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio challenged the government (while on a visit to Beijing), saying,

“But if you look at history, there is a dispute … If you keep saying, ‘There is no territorial dispute,’ you will never get an answer;”49

Abe’s Defense Minister, Onodera Itsunori, branded him a traitor (kokuzoku).50

The intransigent language of Japanese governments in 2013 was reminiscent of 1937, when Japan’s then leader, Konoe Fumimaro ruled out negotiations with Chin’s Chiang Kai-shek in the fateful months leading to full-scale war with China, and when the national media was similarly self-righteous and dismissive of China’s “unreasonableness” and “provocation.” 51 To China it looked as though Japan was actively collaborating in construction of a militarized Maritime Great Wall of China to block its access to the Pacific Ocean. In April Diaoyu was for the first time declared a “core interest,” and in May the People’s Daily added that the status of Okinawa itself had to be negotiated.

However, the high-risk associated with the policies and initiatives declared by the new Abe government evidently alarmed Washington. When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio at their meeting in Washington in January 2013 that there was indeed a dispute and that Japan should sit down with China to negotiate it,52 it was in effect a rebuke. Although Abe subsequently moderated his language and policy, when he visited Washington in late February 2013, he was given neither dinner nor even a joint press conference, having to satisfy himself with a perfunctory lunch with the president. Furthermore, the Joint Communique made no reference to what he most sought: US backing for the Japanese claim to sovereignty over Senkaku/Diaoyu.53 Instead it was devoted entirely to a single issue, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, Washington’s primary agenda. By insisting that he “would not act rashly” over the dispute, Abe appeared to be striving to dampen fears that that was precisely how the White House suspected he might act.54 There was a plaintive note to the press conference at which he stood alone to declare the alliance strengthened. He was more at ease in front of the “Japan handlers” at the Center for Security and international Studies (CSIS) later that day declaring that “Japan is back,”55 by which he was understood to mean that its obedience to Washington directives on the construction of the new base at Henoko on Okinawa was unquestioned, the TPP accepted and base reorganization his greatest priority. Concern that Abe’s neo-nationalist and historical revisionist (rejecting “the narrative of imperial Japanese aggression and victimization of other Asians”) agenda might be “divisive” and “could hurt U.S. interests” spread in Washington (and throughout the US media).56

5. Intrinsic National Territory ­

The Japanese Senkaku claim rests on three fundamental assertions: that the islands, though annexed in 1895 just after China’s defeat in war and three months prior to the Treaty of Shimonoseki by which Taiwan and other islands were specifically ceded to Japan, were not “war spoils,” (or “stolen territories” in the words of the 1943 Cairo Agreement) but terra nullius, territory un-owned and unclaimed by any other country; that the Japanese occupation had been unchallenged between the act of annexation in 1895 and the publication of the ECAFE report in 1968, for at least 70 years; and that the islands were in some almost metaphysical sense Japan’s intrinsic, inalienable territory, what it called koyu no ryodo, a fundamental sector of the Ryukyu Islands. What for one purpose was abandoned and un-owned becomes for another Japan’s absolute and inalienable territory.

As to the first claim, based on terra nullius, such a claim is of dubious merit today, if only for the reason that it harkens back to the time when imperialist countries divided up the world at their will. It has in some cases, notably Australia, has been judicially overruled at the highest court level.57 It stretches credulity today to argue that the Japanese annexation was justified on the terra nullius principle and was therefore unrelated to the victory it had just seized over China in war and more broadly to the military and diplomatic advantage Japan enjoyed in the context of its rise and China’s decline as the wave of high imperialism washed across East Asia. From China’s viewpoint, a single line may be drawn from Ryukyu (1879), Senkaku (1895), Taiwan (1895), to Dongbei or “Manchuria” (1931). The People’s Daily in May 2013 drew precisely such a line.

The prefix “koyu no ryodo” (“intrinsic” or “inalienable” national territory), attaches now almost inevitably to any reference to “Senkaku Islands,” implying at least that they had long been “part” of the Ryukyu islands. Yet that is a dubious proposition since they were not part of Ryukyu’s “36 islands” in pre-modern times nor when the prefecture was established in 1879, but were tacked on to it 16 years later. It is also an ironic appellation for islands unknown in Japan till the late 19th century, then identified from British naval references, not declared Japanese till 1895 or named until 1900, for which neither name nor Japanese claim was revealed until 1952. Furthermore, what were annexed in 1895 were two islands, Uotsuri and Kuba. Two others were added in the leasehold arrangements established in 1896, and one more in 1921. When the Government of Japan “nationalized” the “Senkakus” in 2012, it acted in relation only to the three of them nominally in private hands. Two were excluded, including one that still remains in private hands. They are commonly known, even to the Japanese Coastguard, by their Chinese names, Huangwei and Chiwei, rather than their Japanese names, Kuba and Taisho, and have remained under uncontested US control – as a bombing range – since 1955 for Kuba and 1956 for Taisho with neither national nor metropolitan government in Japan ever complaining or seeking their return. Responding on behalf of the government in 2010 to a Diet question as to why no effort had been made to recover the islands, a spokesman said that the US side “had not indicated its intention to return them.” 58 In other words, Japan would not dream of seeking their return unless the US first indicated that it would be permissible to do so.

It means that, however outspoken and bold they may be to address China, and however adamant on Japan’s “inherent” ownership rights, courage deserts Japan’s leaders when facing the United States. Long-term US military occupations of what they claimed to be “intrinsic” territory simply do not matter. Whatever “koyu” means, it is not inconsistent with occupancy by another country, even if that other country should choose to bomb such islands to smithereens, so long as that “other country” is the United States.

The word “koyu” (Chinese: “guyou”) has no precise English translation and the concept is unknown in international law and foreign to discourse on national territory in much, if not most, of the world.59 The concept seems to have been invented in Japan around 1970, along with t

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