Japan and China Spar Online Over Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands


Despite ongoing efforts to alleviate tensions between China and Japan, the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is not going away anytime soon. In fact, China recently rolled out a website detailing China’s claim to the islands, complete with historical documents and legal arguments. “Diaoyu Island – China’s Inherent Territory,” a banner at the top of the page proclaims. The site not only contains China’s case for sovereignty, but includes photographs, geographical details, and the Chinese names of each of the islands in question.

The new website includes a statement of China’s “basic position” on the Diaoyu Islands. As the website is currently only available in Chinese, I offer a translation below:

  1. Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands are an inseparable part of China’s territory. Whether viewed from an historical or a legal perspective, Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands are all China’s inherent territory, and China has indisputable sovereignty over them.
  2. Before Japan’s so-called “discovery” of Diaoyu Island, China already had administered Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands for a period of several hundred years. In 1895, Japan took advantage of the First Sino-Japanese War to secretly “include” Diaoyu Island in its territory. Japan asserted its sovereignty by declaring Diaoyu Island “terra nullius” [land belonging to no one] prior to Japan’s “initial occupation.” This act by Japan severely violated relevant international laws on the acquisition of territory. It is an illegal act of invasion and occupation of Chinese territory, invalid under international law.  
  3. Under the unequal Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895), Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands were ceded to Japan along with Taiwan and its affiliated islands. After World War II, according to legal documents of the Cairo Declaration, the Potsdam Declaration, and the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands were returned to China. After 1952, the United States unilaterally expanded the [geographical] scope of its “trusteeship,” illegally including China’s Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands. In 1972, the U.S. “returned” to Japan “administrative control” over Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands. This U.S. and Japanese act of privately giving and taking Chinese territory does not have any validity under international law, and China resolutely opposed it.
  4. No matter what unilateral measures Japan uses on the Diaoyu Islands, it cannot change the fact that Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands belong to China. The Chinese government’s determination and will to protect the country’s territorial sovereignty is unswerving; China’s determination to defend the fruits of victory in the global war against fascism is unmoving. We have the confidence and the ability to thwart Japan’s moves to trample on historical fact and international legal principles, and to protect regional peace and order.

The site also includes an overview of China’s historical claims to the island, attempting to provide evidence for China’s assertion that it was the first to “discover, name, and exploit Diaoyu Island.” China offers up a 1403 book titled “Voyage With a Tail Wind” (Shun Feng Xiang Song) as the earliest written reference to Diaoyu Island. “This shows that China had already discovered and named Diaoyu Island as early as the 14th and 15th centuries,” the website argues.

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More relevant from a modern-day perspective (as knowledge of a geographical location does not imply control), China claims to have actually considered Diaoyu Island part of its jurisdiction. “In the Ming dynasty, China added Diaoyu Island to its defense region in order to guard the southeast coast from Japanese pirates,” the website states, pointing to maps from 1561, 1605, and 1621. Each document mentioned on the site has been uploaded as well, so readers (at least those who can interpret classical Chinese) can judge for themselves.

In all, the new website echoes a longer white paper on the Diaoyu Islands issued by China’s State Council in September 2012, shortly after Japan nationalized the islands. Readers looking for a more thorough rundown of China’s claims should check it out.

Japan, meanwhile, has its own website for the Senkaku Islands, expounding on Tokyo’s claims. “There is no doubt that the Senkaku Islands are clearly an inherent territory of Japan, in light of historical facts and based upon international law,” the website proclaims – essentially the same claim that China makes for itself. As the Chinese website indicates, Japan’s claims are largely based on the idea of terra nullius – that the islands were uninhabited and not under Chinese control when Japan annexed them.

To quote from Japan’s website:

From 1885, surveys of the Senkaku Islands had been thoroughly conducted by the Government of Japan through the agencies of Okinawa Prefecture and through other means. Through these surveys, it was confirmed that the Senkaku Islands had been not only uninhabited but also showed no trace of having been under the control of the Qing Dynasty of China. Based on this confirmation, the Government of Japan made a Cabinet Decision on January 14, 1895, to erect markers on the islands to formally incorporate the Senkaku Islands into the territory of Japan. These measures were carried out in accordance with the internationally accepted means of duly acquiring territorial sovereignty under international law (occupation of terra nullius).

As part of this claim, Japan argues that none of the historical evidence presented by Beijing (or Taiwan, for that matter) “is valid evidence under international law to support the Chinese assertion of its territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands.” Japan notes that the historical documents that mention the Diaoyu Islands make no explicit mention of Chinese ownership or Chinese control. “[T]he existence of a map in itself does not evidence the assertion of territorial sovereignty,” Japan’s website points out.

Here, it is important to remember that the definition of sovereignty generally accepted in today’s international community has not been constant throughout history. In fact, as Ambassador Chas W. Freeman argues, differing definitions of sovereignty illuminate the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. As Freeman explains:

Traditional Asian statecraft exercised jurisdiction over people, not places. Places without people were, in this conception, no-man’s lands, belonging to none, but accessible to all.

The notion of sovereignty as it evolved in Europe was quite different. There the governing authorities exercised jurisdiction over territories and assigned them to national ownership whether or not there were people in them…

As in so much else, Japan led the way to change in Asia by adopting the European concept of sovereignty… The first place to which Tokyo applied the un-Asian idea of geography-based state authority was the five islands and three adjacent rocks that make up the Diaoyu Islands. Not having yet embraced the Western idea that a state is defined by its territory rather than by its people, the Qing government of China had not seen a need to establish effective control of the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands. So, following Western legal norms, Japan declared them ‘terra nullius.’

Here is the crux of the Senkaku/Diaoyu question: differing understandings of historical sovereignty. By the Qing dynasty, China was certainly aware of the existence of the Diaoyu Islands – they had Chinese names and were included on Chinese maps, and the area was frequented by Chinese fishermen. But because the idea of sovereignty as we now understand it did not exist, there was little reason for the Qing government to consolidate control of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Thus the Japanese government in the late 19th century could (and did) claim that the islands were not under Chinese administrative control. Even in the 20th century, control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (and other uninhabited maritime features) did not become a major issue until the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea codified access to maritime resources based on control of nearby land features.

Today, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island issue has become a complex web of competing historical claims, national pride, and the messy legacies of the First and Second Sino-Japanese Wars. With no resolution in sight, both sides have taken to the court of international public opinion to try and advance their claims — and given the complexity of the question, both sides can legitimately claim to be speaking the truth.

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