Tokyo Notes

Japan: What Island Dispute?

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Tokyo Notes

Japan: What Island Dispute?

Japan’s foreign minister shrugs off talk of a territory dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

While the premiers of Japan and China were agreeing to resume high-level talks in Brussels on Monday, Japan’s foreign minister was again insisting in Tokyo on Tuesday that there's no territorial dispute between the countries in the East China Sea.

During a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in which he set out the principles of his ‘economic diplomacy’ and repeatedly emphasized the need to deepen the US-Japan alliance, Seiji Maehara repeated his argument that the Senkakus are an ‘integral part of Japan,’ implying that incidents such as the ‘deliberate ramming’ of Japan Coast Guard boats by the fishing trawler should be dealt with by domestic law.

While talking the talk of a hardliner, though, Maehara refused to be drawn on whether Japan was prepared to spill blood to protect the islands or whether there was a need to conduct joint military exercises with the United States near the Senkakus to make clear to Beijing that the US-Japan security alliance really did cover the islands.

Instead, Maehara said he welcomed as ‘a very positive development’ news that Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had agreed to restart high-level talks between the two neighbours during a 25-minute meeting on the sidelines of the ASEM meeting in Brussels. This was the first encounter between the two leaders since the arrest of the fishing boat captain. Maehara also said that the door was always open for negotiating a ‘mutually beneficial’ agreement between Japan and China that would prevent similar incidents taking place again in the future.

Maehara went over his take on the now familiar historical argument for Japan’s control of the islands. He said a 10-year process initiated by the Japanese government to determine whether anyone else had a claim to the islands ended with Japan taking control of them in 1895. After World War II, Article 3 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty stipulated that Okinawa, including the Senkaku Islands, would be placed under US administration, so when Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, that included the Senkaku Islands, he said. As for China, Maehara said it didn’t officially claim the islands until 1971—after reports of gas and oil reserves had come to light.

‘Before this time there is no record of China or Taiwan making any public claims relating to these islands,’ he said. ‘In fact, in 1953 an article appeared in the People’s Daily that referred to the Senkaku Islands as being part of the Ryukyu [Okinawa] Islands. It did not say they were part of China. In about 1960 we can also find instances of maps produced in China that don’t include the Senkakus as part of China.’

Regarding this kind of account, recent stories in the Chinese media point out that China lost a war to Japan in 1895 and that it didn’t sign the San Francisco Peace Treaty. It has also been suggested that the official claim to the islands was made when it became clear that Japan was going to retake control of them with the handover of Okinawa in 1972.

But regardless of whether or not you buy into Maehara’s argument that the issue of the Senkaku Islands is not a territorial dispute, there can be no denying the tension that surrounds them.

‘In the past I’ve had three opportunities to board Japan Coast Guard patrol airplanes, and I’ve seen the situation from the air. I’ve always seen many Chinese and Taiwanese fishing boats on the periphery of this territory, and the JCG was on a daily basis involved in making them go away,’ he said.

Maehara added that the JCG has boarded boats to conduct inspections on at least 10 occasions this year. The latest case, though, was clearly of a more malicious nature, he said.

‘I do understand the importance of the Japan-China relationship and I think if both sides put their heads together so we can come up with ways to prevent such incidents from happening again in the future,’ he said. ‘I think that will be better for all concerned.’

As for his economic diplomacy vision, Maehara explained that for Japan to increase its diplomatic weight, it had to increase its economic strength first. He set out three aspects of his ‘economic diplomacy’: Japan needed to pursue a more open trade policy, secure more diverse sources of food and resource supplies, and it needed to take better advantage of its technical expertise to export new infrastructures to other countries.

A bilateral or multilateral trade agreement with the United States, he said, could also be an additional way of strengthening the US-Japan alliance, which he described as being central to ensuring stability on security issues and for developing effective crisis responses.