History Wars: A Long View of Asia's Territorial Disputes
Image Credit: Al Jazeera English via Flickr

History Wars: A Long View of Asia's Territorial Disputes


Next month, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) will deliver its verdict in the case of Cambodia and Thailand’s territorial dispute over the Preah Vihear temple. For several months, the court has been poring over a judgment it made on the same issue fifty years earlier. That judgment was partly based on interpretations of old treaties, old maps and other fragments pertaining to the temple’s 900-year history. The whole exercise, in other words, has been as much an historical investigation as it has been a legal process.

Since neither the Thais nor the Cambodians seem inclined to accept an unfavorable verdict, the ICJ’s decision will probably go down as just another moment in the temple’s long and contested history, rather than as the end of the story so far as the dispute goes. Even so, the matter may be nearer closure than some of Asia’s other most tortuous territorial arguments.

Here, The Diplomat reviews the history of five of them. Among the contradictory narratives and fluctuating fortunes, one thing, at least, is clear. When Asian leaders insist that their country’s claim to a contested territory is historically indisputable, they are never right.

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1. Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands

China and Japan both claim the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which are equidistant between Taiwan and the end of the Japanese Okinawa/Ryukyu island chain. They are, however, under Japanese control.

Chinese navigators and fishermen had known about “the Fishing Islands” since the 15th century or earlier, and Qing-era Taiwan government documents indicate that the islands, though never settled by the Chinese, were loosely administered from Taiwan. China never claimed the nearby Ryukyus, but 17th-century Chinese sources suggest that China considered the Diaoyu islands to be separate from the Ryukyu chain, mentioning as they do a maritime boundary between them at a place called Black Water Trench (this trench is marked on modern maps). However, other sources assert that the islands were a part of the old Ryukyu Kingdom, and it seems the Okinawans knew about them, and fished their waters, even earlier than the Chinese.

By the 19th century, with Japan emerging as a regional power, we start seeing a clash between new and old ideas about power and sovereignty. Japan began exploring the Senkaku Islands in 1884 within a few years of annexing the previously independent Ryukyus, and then claimed them as sovereign territory in January 1895 on the grounds that they were unoccupied features (terra nullius) – not on the grounds that they were part of the Ryukyus. This approach ran counter to the older view that the islands, though unsettled, fell within the Chinese “sphere.” Japan is effectively arguing here that the war it was fighting with China at the time was completely coincidental to its annexation of the islands. The Chinese government did not protest, but as a failing regime it may not have been in a position to do so. The Japanese only now created the name “Senkaku” for the islands.

However, Meiji-era documents suggest that Japan took control of the Senkakus opportunistically during the Sino-Japanese war, and not because it had spent a long time surveying the islands (as Tokyo later claimed) and found them to be empty. This is important because the Cairo Declaration of 1943 ordained that Japan should return territories taken from China as the spoils of war – something Japan formally agreed to do when it signed the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty. However, Tokyo has always argued that it assumed ownership of the Senkaku Islands as terra nullius before the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, under which it annexed Taiwan and other territories, and that it is therefore permitted to hang onto the Senkakus because they were not spoils of war.

After World War II, the United States administered the Senkakus as part of the Okinawa/Ryukyu chain (though Taipei soon protested that the Chinese side had not realized the Diaoyu Islands were the same as the “Senkaku Islands”). Okinawa, and with it the Senkakus, then reverted to Japan in 1972, although the U.S. has never formally recognized Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus.

Chinese references to the islands from this period arguably lend weight to the view that China no longer claimed them, with an official document referring to them as the Senkakus, and a People’s Daily report lumping them together with the Ryukyus in an article protesting U.S. occupation. Beijing dismisses these references as errors and insists that it claimed the Diaoyu Islands all along, while Tokyo argues that the Chinese cynically constructed their claim in the early 1970s following the discovery of nearby oil.

Tentative conclusions: History puts the Japanese claim under pressure. The crux is whether Japan is justified in claiming that it took over the islands as terra nullius in 1895, or whether China is right to argue that Japan annexed an existing Chinese possession as spoils of war.

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