Japan's Islands and China's Illicit Claims

Report Asia

Japan's Islands and China's Illicit Claims

April 14, 2005 4 min read
John Tkacik
Senior Research Fellow

As a campaign of government-condoned anti-Japanese violence continues for the third weekend in China's cities, Chinese naval and research vessels continue their "survey and exploration" activities in the waters of Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Senkaku islands (which China calls "Diaoyutai") in the western end of the Ryukyu chain. China has harassed Japanese commercial vessels in the area for over a year, and in January the Chinese Navy began to patrol areas adjacent to Japan's waters with new Russian-made Sovremennyy-class destroyers. These destroyers are newly built versions of a 1980s design. Each carries a SS-N-22 "Sunburn" supersonic anti-ship cruise missile, which makes them very dangerous. On April 13, after failing to get the Chinese government to cease its activities in the area, the Japanese government announced that it would no longer dissuade Japanese firms from filing their own exploration applications.


Misinformation in the U.S. and international media describes the matter as "frictions over disputed waters." But it is a "dispute" that China raised only in 1972, and only after a report indicated there may be seabed natural gas deposits in the region. China's aggressiveness in the area is no longer about energy because more recent surveys cast doubt on the size of the deposits. China's sole aim now is territorial. If Washington hopes to maintain respect for international legal traditions or maintain its alliances in the Western Pacific, then the United States must support Japan against China's unreasonable claims.


China Has No Claim

The status of the Senkakus is clear. Under the international legal doctrine of terra nullius, Japan first claimed the uninhabited and unclaimed islets in 1895 to use their rocky outcroppings for maritime navigation aids. From that time through the end of World War II, they were administered as part of Japan's Okinawa prefecture. Upon the Japanese surrender, the United States administered the islets under a military occupation authority. In 1972, when the United States returned Okinawa to Japanese administration, the Senkakus were explicitly included in the reversion. There is no doubt that the United States has always regarded the islands as Japanese.


China and Taiwan have expressed interest in the islands since only 1968, when a United Nations Economic Commission For Asia development report was released that suggested there may be large seabed hydrocarbon deposits near the islands. On June 11, 1971, the Republic of China on Taiwan formally claimed the Senkakus. Since then, both Taiwan's "Republic of China" government and the People's Republic in Beijing have made assertions of sovereignty over the islands based on undocumented ancient texts. After the United States returned the islands to Japan in the 1972 Okinawa Reversion Agreement, China lodged a formal protest with the U.S. government. Eager not to alienate Beijing just as President Nixon was beginning his opening to China, the U.S. State Department announced that the Reversion Agreement "did not affect the sovereignty" over disputed islands.


However, as recently as March 24, 2004, the U.S. Department of State, via a State Department spokesman, has reasserted that the Senkaku islands fall within the ambit of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty:


The Senkaku Islands have been under the administrative control of the Government of Japan since having been returned as part of the reversion of Okinawa in 1972. Article 5 of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security states that the treaty applies to the territories under the administration of Japan; thus, Article 5 of the Mutual Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.


Sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands is disputed. The U.S. does not take a position on the question of the ultimate sovereignty of the Senkaku Diaoyu Islands. This has been our longstanding view. We expect the claimants will resolve this issue through peaceful means and we urge all claimants to exercise restraint.[1]


U.S. officials have said the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty covers "all territories under the administration of Japan," and there is no question that, as a matter of law-whether under the Reversion Agreement, the alliance treaty, or the terms of the U.S. military occupation of the Ryukyu island chain-that the Senkakus are indeed "under the administration of Japan." As such, any hostile activities against the islands would trigger the treaty. But Washington's ambiguous stance on "sovereignty" sends a message to Beijing that the United States views both Japan's and China's claims as equally valid. Clearly, though, the history of America's quarter-century occupation of the Senkakus and international law are powerful evidence that the U.S. considers Japan's claims to sovereignty as having merit.


The United States should view with alarm China's increasing aggressiveness in the Western Pacific and its continuing challenges to long-established territorial sea demarcations. The Senkaku seabeds that China now claims have been under the "sovereign" administration of either Japan or the United States for over a century. The United States should make this point firmly and thereby confront China's provocations with clarity instead of ambiguity. 

John Tkacik, Jr., is Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] See Department of State Daily Press Briefing, Adam Ereli, Deputy Spokesman, for March 24, 2004, p. 14 at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2004/30743.htm.


John Tkacik

Senior Research Fellow