Disputed Islands a Flashpoint in a Greater Game

By Phillip Charlier

The recent and ongoing dispute over the territorial sovereignty of the Diaoyu Tai/Senkaku islands is becoming one episode in a rapidly developing re-polarisation of the geo-politics of the Asia-Pacific region.

Both the Republic of China (Taiwan) and People’s Republic of China agree that the islands, located 186 kilometres northeast of Keelung, are part of Taiwan and administered as part of Toucheng Township in Yilan County. Therefore, when the PRC claims that the Diaoyu Tai are part of China, they are also, by implication, asserting their territorial claim over Taiwan.

Pro-unification President of Taiwan (ROC) Ma Ying-jeou recently stated on the issue that “There have been clashes between Taiwan and Japan and between mainland China and Japan, but none between Taiwan and mainland China.”

Japan’s claims of sovereignty date back to 1895, when during the Sino-Japanese war, the Japanese, declaring the territory ‘Terra Nullius’, placed a marker on the islands and incorporated them into Yaeyema Prefecture. A few months later, having defeated China, the Treaty of Shimonoseki contained the provision that “China cedes to japan in perpetuity and full sovereignty the following territories…(b) the island of Formosa together with all the islands appertaining or belonging to the said island of Formosa.”

Shuichiro Kawaguchi, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Japan, Dar es Salaam, recently argued that

“Japan incorporated Senkaku Islands after confirming that these islands were “terra nullius”.
Therefore, these islands were not ceded to Japan as a result of the war; it was already Japan’s territory. China did not object to Japan’s acquisition of the Senkaku Islands during the negotiations on the Shimonoseki Treaty after the Sino-Japanese war in March 1895, even though they were in the position to do so, nor during the following 76 years until 1971.”

After Japan’s defeat at the end of the Second World War, Japan conceded to the terms of the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Declaration which declared that “…all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China.” But the Senkaku’s were not ceded to the ROC government administration. Instead, under the San Francisco Treaty of 1951, they were placed under the trusteeship of the United States, who then, despite protests from the ROC government in Taiwan, returned them to Japanese administration in 1972.

Last week, much to the displeasure of Beijing, the USA threw its weight behind Japan on the issue with Hillary Clinton stating, October 29, 2010 “Let me say clearly again the Senkakus fall within the scope of article 5 of the 1960 US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security” (by which the US must come to the military aid of Japan if its territory comes under attack).

Then today, November 1, much to the chagrin of Japan, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev landed on Kunashiri Island, just off Japan’s northern coast for a visit to Kuriles, a territory taken from Japan during the waning years of World War II, and source of tension between Russia and Japan ever since. A bold move and definitely no mere coincidence.

While in China September 27, Mr. Medvedev celebrated the 65th anniversary of the Soviet-Chinese alliance in the war against Japan (1936-45) and used strong language to convey Russia’s solidarity — “Friendship with China is Russia’s strategic choice, it’s a choice that was sealed by blood years ago”; “The friendship between the Russian and the Chinese peoples, cemented by the military events, will be indestructible and will do good for our future generations.”

Vietnam, which also shares a border with China and has historically suffered as a tribute-state of the middle kingdom, yesterday announced a new deal with Japan. Vietnam will develop and provide Japan with rare-earth metals(bypassing China’s stranglehold), while Japan will provide civilian nuclear power capabilities to Vietnam.

“Cooperation in electricity and railways, which are extremely important for Vietnam, and resources development, which is necessary for our nation, will be positive for Vietnam and Japan,” Japanese Prime Minister Kan said ahead of the talks, the Japan Times quoted.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama is due in India November 7. The White House has been at great pains to explain that President Barack Obama’s visit to India is all about jobs and trade. If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.

3 thoughts on “Disputed Islands a Flashpoint in a Greater Game

  • November 8, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    My friend brings up an excellent point. Ma Ying-jeou, when at Harvard, wrote his THESIS on the Diaoyutai islands. Now as president, he has not said A WORD in this debate, in which Taiwan has arguably the most legitimate claim to the territory. In effect, he’s signing away Taiwan’s claim. Scandalous!

    “How can you use it as your thesis and not say a g’damn word as president? it’s a prime indicator how he keeps his yap shut regarding any issue involving Taiwan and China. If anyone SHOULD stand up for Taiwan, it should be Ma Ying-jeou.”

  • November 2, 2010 at 6:01 am

    Economics aside, it’s an issue of geo-strategic importance. There’s more than money involved here. Money only muddies up the waters.

  • November 1, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    It’s important to note overlapping claims to undersea gas deposits in this area, the cause of the friction.

    WIKI: In September 2010, an incident between a Chinese trawler and the Japanese Coast Guard sparked increased tensions over drilling for natural gas in contested waters in the East China Sea;[22][24] and the provocative factors are only partially identified in a perceived zero-sum game.

    The two sites – the Chunxiao and Longjing fields – are closest to the median line dividing the two countries’ waters. Japan calls them Shirakaba and Asunaro. In the Chunxiao field, Japan will invest in two Chinese companies – China National Offshore Oil, and China Petroleum and Chemical Corp. Profits will be distributed in proportion to the size of investment, Kyodo said. At the Longjing site, where exploration has not begun, the two countries will equally split the development cost and profit.
    This effectively sidelines Taiwan in the debate, don’t it?


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