Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands Dispute: A Historical Overview

Published On June 6, 2013 | Far East

A historical overview of the relationship between the parties from 1609 to today

It has to be recorded that whenever there is a scramble for a territory, the initial clash is not only rooted in those common legal disagreements between the parties in dispute, but also stems from various other motives. The most important of these other motives are economic gain and geopolitical security. The discovery of oil and gas was one of the major reasons the Diaoyutai Islands attracted political attention. Sadly, after great excitement about the discovery, these resources turned out to be not as sufficient as predicted. Additionally, oil price slipped to a level below $ 20 US a barrel in the mid-eighties.

In the eighties, oil was of no great international concern, but this has changed significantly.

Prior to the discovery of oil and gas deposits in the area of the islands all three governments had a sluggish attitude towards the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands. However, there is no denial today that the Diaoyu / Senkaku conflict is related to the presence oil. The amount of mineral reserves and the ability to export energy resources determines every country’s role in world politics. Therefore, it is in the interest of all the parties of the dispute to become the actual holder of the islands. Once the possession of them is completed, the energy resources may be used as a handy bargaining chip in international politics.

In addition, it is important to note that the conflict isn’t just about the discovery of natural resources, but also something much more than the question of who the islands belongs to. The recent development in the region has shown that the conflict is now being used by all parties as a vehicle to promote their national agenda.

The Historical Development of Nationalism in Taiwan, China and Japan

Taiwanese Nationalism

The Taiwanese claim to the Tiao-yu-tai Islands correlates with their contention of Taiwan of being the legal representative of the Chinese people. For the Taiwanese, laying claim to the Tiao-yu-tai as their own territory could affect their formal independence. If an international court were to award the islands to Taiwan, this verdict would imply a further recognition of the Republic of China (ROC). In recent times however, it has been argued that the status of Taiwan is not about right and wrong in international law, but about pragmatism is politics. After the U.S. modified their China policy in 1971-72 Taiwan lost its seat in the United Nations. Today, Taiwan maintains diplomatic relations with only 25 countries and thus receives little international recognition. This recognition is mainly based on a “dollar diplomacy”, a policy whereby Taiwan buys diplomatic relations. Only 48 countries have established representative offices in Taipei. Legally speaking, Taiwan is today a self-governing dominion under the benign of the military occupier USA. Against this backdrop, you may agree with me that a Taiwanese nation does not yet fully exist. The President regularly hints at a declaration of independence, which causes severe threats from China mainland. Taking into account the common standards to be applied for probing the independence of a state (such as territory, population, government, capacity to enter in relation with other states) it must be concluded that Taiwan is not legally an independent state and “owns” only de-facto Taiwan and some offshore islands. Interestingly, Taiwan has not yet claimed its own statehood (declaration of independence) and declared that it would actually secede from China. In 1991, the ROC recognized mainland China authorities as a “political entity”. Although being aware of their common roots with the Chinese mainland, today more and more Taiwanese consider themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.

The two Chinas do not grant international recognition to each other. Dealing with Taiwan, the Chinese press continuously refers to the Taiwan as the “Taiwan province” to make clear that they regard the ROC as a renegade island belonging to mainland China. As a result, a peaceful settlement of the Diaoyu question with participation of the ROC and the PRC has to be ruled out until the Taiwan question is finally resolved.

Chinese Nationalism

During the Middle Ages, the territories known today as Korea and Japan were once part of China. Unlike Western powers, the Middle Kingdom never sought to overthrow or colonize other territories; instead, as early as in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.) the Chinese erected a system of tributary states. These tributary states owed political submission to the Chinese emperors in exchange for material rewards. During this period the Diaoyu Islands belonged to the Ryukyu Kingdom, which had been such a tributary state to the Chinese emperor since 1372.

In the Song Dynasty (960 –1279) the Chinese government dispatched navy vessels into the South China Sea to patrol around the Paracel Islands. Afterwards the Chinese state did not display interest in subduing other states. This prohibition was reinforced by the “forbidden to the sea” policy in the 18th century when the Chinese were not allowed to go to sea and potential perpetrators were deterred by the death penalty. Nonetheless, after Japan’s military victory in the Sino-Japanese War, in 1895, the Chinese were forced to cede Taiwan and recognize Korea as an independent country.  In the aftermath of this treaty, China had to renounce its sovereignty over the Liaodong peninsula where Russia was taking over this region.

In 1937, after having occupied Manchuria in 1931 Japan attached eastern China causing an enormous disruption. It was the time, when China suffered more than 200,000 civilian casualties and mass executions of prisoners of war. After the eight years of conquest, Japan was forced to surrender at the end of World War II and semi-colonial China was returned to the Chinese people. As in Germany the punishment of the Japanese war criminals could not match the sins and atrocities they had committed.

However, Popular Chinese nationalism may be traced back to the Chinese humiliation complex left by these historic experiences. Their ancestors suffering during the unlawful dominance of foreign intruding powers is deeply engraved in Chinese minds. Former victims equate sovereignty with the recovery of all that they had to cede to invading imperialistic powers. After the WW II China was able to restore its sovereignty and after having witnessed how their claims were cast down in the course of international treaty negotiations, the country became highly conscious about its new status and willingness to maintain the status-quo. As a result, the PRC cannot afford any conciliatory stance since this would equate to a “political suicide” in the light of the public’s ardent wish to restore the territorial integrity of the country.

China over the past twenty years has undergone tremendous development from an agrarian developing country to a state with an unprecedented economic outlook. The disjuncture between the ideological communist idea and economic reality in the PRC is more apparent today than ever. Given that the Chinese leaders are the inheritors of an ideology that has lost most of its appeal the Chinese populace feels alienated from its government. The CCP’s central problem is to run the tightly controlled system in concert with an open economy while ensuring that the opening process does not cause any spill – over effects on the political sector.

Japan’s Nationalism

The Japanese actions towards the Senkaku Islands must be seen in the context of the emergence of China as an economic and military giant. Over the last 16 years, the struggling Japanese economy has had a profound psychological effect on its citizens. Although it has excellent trade relations (a 17% rise in 2004), it is foreseeable that China will replace Japan as the most powerful regional state. China blaming has become a winning factor in Japan’s domestic politics. Lacking “soft power” in the region and being dependant on the U.S. in terms of military protection, Japan has to be careful about not to be marginalized in the region. Japan’s vulnerability and subordination to the U.S. needs a “theatre” of nationalism, which is shown by the reprisal of nationalism, which denies the debasing truth of the loss of power in substance. Therefore it must be celebrated in rituals and in symbols.

Historical Overview of the Conflict

From 1609 the Ryukyu Kingdom was a tributary state to both countries: China and Japan. The last Chinese envoys to the kingdom were noticing that the Ryukyuans were becoming more and more japanized than their own people once sinicized them. Apparently, they felt the pressure to “respect” the Japanese more than to honour the Chinese explaining that they started Ryukyu(or Japanese) names to identify the Diaoyu Island as Uotsuri. In 1872, the Japanese government set up the “Ryukyu han” subjugating the Ryukyuans under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Ministry. After the Botan tribe incident the Japanese compelled the Ryukyu to break ties with the Chinese Emperor. In 1876, the jurisdiction for the former independent kingdom was delegated to the Home Secretary.

China – Japan Mediation as a suite to Japan’s Invasion

Having been invaded the government of Ryukyu Kingdom sent envoys to the Middle Kingdom so that they could request military assistance. Being weakened by internal disorder the Qing court could not do much in favour of the Ryukyuans. It is also important to note that former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant had led negotiations between China and Japan in a private meeting. In this mediation, Japan proposed that from the Okinawa Islands to the north all territories should become Japanese. All the territories belonging to Miyako-Yaeyama islands should remain Ryukyu/ Chinese. In this peace negotiation, the Diaoyu Islands were not subject to any discussions indicating that they were not considered Ryukyu territory. In 1881, the Qing government finally turned in and signed the treaty to divide the Ryukyu Kingdom into two parts following the Japanese proposal. The Qing emperor withheld his imperial assent to this humiliation.

Geographer’s point of view

In a reputed book called “Sangoku Tsuran Zusetsu” the Japanese geographer Hayashi Shifei analysed the Ryukyu Kingdom. Relying on Zhongshan Chuanchin Ku by Xu Baoguang, he illustrated the known world’s geography using altitudes and latitudes. He also revealed that the Ryukyu Kingdom was composed of thirty-six islands not comprising the Diaoyu Islands.

Cheng Shuntse 1708

A crucial point for the Chinese claim to the islands might be that as early as in the eighteenth century Japanese scholars believed the Senkaku Islands belonged to China. Cheng Shuntse stated in his booklet “General Guide Book for Navigation”in 1708 that “the Kume Shima is the western boundary mountain of the Ryukyus.

Japan’s acquisition of the Senkaku Islands

The 1868 Meiji Restoration reforms were instrumental in expanding the nation’s influence. The Ryukyu Kingdom was not the only country to be subdued: Korea was coercively “opened” by Japan in 1874. The Senkaku Islands were thereafter as well on Japan’s agenda. The Japanese had already insinuated to be willing to extend the territory to the Senkaku Islands by 1879. Japan’s acquisition of the Ryukyu Kingdom did not coincide with the final incorporation of the Senkaku Islands in 1895.

The reasons for such tardiness are subject to manifold interpretations: According to Japanese officials the Japanese government was rather reluctant to seize the islands due to their smallness, their proximity to China and the fear of triggering negative publicity in the Chinese media. The Governor of the Okinawa Prefecture made a request to the central government on Tokyo in 1885 and 1890 that the Senkaku Islands should be designated as part of his prefecture. Actually, it is not clear if the Magistrate acted on behalf of a secret order from the Home Secretary or if he independently submitted the request.

In 1894, the central government reacted to his third submission of 1893 and conferred the islands to the Okinawa Prefecture. On January 14th, 1895, the Japanese government eventually instructed the prefecture to erect landmarks on the islands. All these cabinet decision were secretly made; they were declassified and were published no earlier than in March 1952 (Japan Foreign Affairs Documents). The details of Japan’s reluctance are to be mentioned:

First Letter of Okinawa Prefecture Magistrate, September 22nd, 1885. (Shaw, 1999)

“Because Kumeseki-shima, Kuba-shima and Uotsuri-shima have since ancient times been the names used by this prefecture to refer to them, and since they are uninhabited islands close to the islands Kume, Miyako, Yaeyama under the jurisdiction of this prefecture, there should not exist any difficulties hindering their incorporation into this prefecture. Yet, due to their differences in terms of topography from the earlier reported islands Daitojima, the possibility must not be ignored that they are the same islands recorded as Diaoyutai, Huangweiyu, and Chiweiyu in the Zhongshan Records. If they truly are the same islands, then it is obviously the case that the details of the islands have already been well known to Qing envoy ships dispatched to crown the former Zhongshan King and already given fixed (Chinese) names and used as navigation aids en route to the Ryukyu Islands.”

The Home Secretary after reading attached the Magistrate’s acknowledgements asserting that they were not relevant in the legal sense.  The Foreign Minister could not consent to the Home Minister and appealed for much more caution on October 21rst, 1885.

Letter of the Foreign Secretary in 1885: The Minister proposed a Delay.

“Most recently Chinese newspapers have been reporting rumours of our government’s intention of occupying certain islands owned by China located next to Taiwan, demonstrating suspicion towards our country and consistently urging the Qing government to be aware of this matter. In such a time, if we were to publicly place national markers on the islands, this must necessarily invite China’s suspicion towards markers on the islands; this must necessarily invite Chin’s suspicion towards us. In regard to the matter of placing national markers and developing the islands, it should await a more appropriate time.”….”Moreover, the investigations of the above-mentioned islands should not be published in the Official Gazette or newspaper. Please pay attention to this. (Japan Foreign Affairs document, 1950)

Creation of diplomatic hardships with the Chinese in case of an publicized incorporation of the islands.

Second Okinawa Magistrate’s letter in 1885:

After been informed about the unfortunate timing of the incorporation the Home Secretary received a second letter from the Magistrates submitted on November 24th, 1885 reiterating that the rightness of the claim could be dubitable.

“In regard to construction of national markers…, since the matter is not unrelated to China, if problems do indeed arise, I would be in grave repentance for my responsibility.” (ICJ Reports,1953 )

Response of the Home Secretary

“Based on the reasons given in your previous letter of inquiry, please acknowledge that the construction (of national markers) shall currently not be undertaken.” (Japan Foreign Affairs document, 1950)

Until the end of World War II, the Japanese government kept silence about the envisaged incorporation in order not to stir up anti-Japanese sentiments in China. The pending issue was just postponed. The Chinese scholars take all the preceding statements of Japanese officials as evidence, which Japan’s administration deemed the islands to appertain to China.

Decree of Empress Dowager Cixi of 1893

In 1893, the Empress Dowager Cixi granted the Diaoyu Islands to Sheng Xuanhuai who was the Chief Minister of the Court of Imperial sacrifices at that time. Being also a businessman in the pharmaceutical sector, he was keen on harvesting the plant “static earbuscula” on the islands. The Chinese used these herbs to manufacture pills to prevent high blood pressure and relieve pain because of dampness. Being thrilled about the effectiveness of the pills the Dowager Cixi awarded three of the disputed islands to the Chinese pharmacologist. This decree carried the imperial seal thereby making it official:

“The medical pills submitted by Sheng Xuanhuai have proved to be very effective. The herbs used in making the pills are said to have been collected from the small island of Diaoyutai, beyond the seas of Taiwan. It has come to my knowledge that the said official’s family has maintained for generations pharmacies offering free treatment and herbs to destitute patients. This is really most commendable. The three islands of Diaoyutai, Huangwei Yu, and Chiwei yu are hereby ordered to be awarded to Sheng Xuanhuai as his property for the purpose of collecting medicinal herbs.

Queen Mother Cixi Seal.

Okinawa Prefecture 1894

The Japanese until 1894 could not make any progress regarding the incorporation of the islands. In a letter of response to the Director of the Prefecture Administration Bureau of the Ministry of Home Affairs Egi Kazuyuki the Okinawa Prefecture Governor stated that no investigation had been carried out so far on the islands. In his request, Mr. Kazuyuki wondered as well whether there was evidence such as old records or folklore that demonstrate the islands belong to our country. The answer of the Okinawa Prefecture was the following:

“There exist no old records related to the said islands or any transcribed evidence or folklore and legends demonstrating that the islands belong to our territory”  (Shaw, 1999)

There is no doubt that this secret letter conveys a different idea of what is the official Japanese contention published on the web page of the Japanese Foreign Ministry.


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