June 27, 2008
By John J. Tkacik, Jr.
In March 2004, the last time controversy over the Senkaku
(Diaoyutai) islands surfaced, the US State Department affirmed that
the United States Mutual Security Treaty with Japan covered the
"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," State Department spokesman Adam
Ereli said. "Article 5 of the 1960 US-Japan Treaty of Mutual
Cooperation and Security," he said, "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
So while the US may not take a position on "the ultimate
sovereignty" of the islands, certainly their inclusion in the US
security commitment to Japan makes apparent where its sympathies
Where does sovereignty lie?
On the issue of sovereignty, let me make clear what the State
Department cannot: The Senkaku islands are Japanese.
The Senkakus are a set of eight small uninhabited high islands in
the rich fishing waters of the East China Sea that are
administratively part of the Ryukyu island chain. They are defined
under Article 3 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty as within the
"Nansei Shoto" and the US was granted the "right to exercise all
and any powers of administration, legislation and jurisdiction over
the territory and inhabitants of these islands, including their
territorial waters" by the treaty. The US occupied and administered
them for 27 years after World War II and in 1972 returned the
islands to Japanese sovereignty as part of the Okinawa
Japan first claimed the Senkakus in January 1895 after decades of
shipwrecks and near disasters had convinced Tokyo that lighthouses
needed to be erected there. The claim on the Senkakus, as such, had
nothing to do with Japan's colonial occupation of Taiwan as part of
the settlement of the Sino-Japanese War that same year.
At the turn of the last century, President Ma Ying-jeou said, a
Japanese businessman named Koga found that the main Senkaku Island
held a fresh-water spring that could sustain about 200 people. He
then brought workers, food and supplies to the main Senkaku Islands
and built houses, reservoirs, docks, warehouses, sewers and farms
for tuna fishing and canning. The tuna cannery business continued
until World War II.
Clearly, for the purposes of international law, the Senkaku chain
qualifies as "islands" because they are capable of "sustaining
This is important because under the UN Convention on the Law of
the Sea --to which both China and Japan are parties --an "island"
brings to its owner a 200 nautical mile (370km) "exclusive economic
zone" and sovereign claim to the resources and seabed minerals
On May 15, 1972, after 25 years of military occupation, the US
relinquished to Japan "all rights and interests" over the Okinawa
territories, the State Department said, "including the Senkaku
Islands, which we had been administering under Article of the
Prior to 1969, neither Beijing nor Taipei indicated any desire for
the Senkaku Islands. Maps printed in Taiwan before 1969 either
failed to depict them entirely, failed to name them or included
boundary delineations to the west of the islands (inferring they
were in Japanese waters).
In my collection of maps, I have a facsimile of plate 18 of the
Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Fen Sheng Ditu (People's Republic of
China Provincial Map) of "Fujian Province, Taiwan Province"
published in mimi (confidential) form by the Zhonghua Renmin
Gongheguo Guojia Cehui Zongju (Headquarters, National Surveillance
Bureau), Beijing, 1969, which identified the Senkaku Islands as the
"Jiange Qundao" --using the Chinese characters for the Japanese
name "Senkaku Island Group" --rather than the Chinese name
A People's Daily commentary of June 1953, which called on the
people of Okinawa to resist the US imperialists occupying their
homelands, enumerated the "Jiange" (Senkaku) islands as part of the
Ryukyu chain, clear evidence that the Beijing government considered
the islands part of Japan even in the heat of the Korean War.
Prior to 1968, no one in either Taipei or Beijing knew of any
particular benefit in owning the Senkaku Islands. In 1968, however,
geologists K.O. Emery and Hiroshi Niino, writing for the UN
Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (UNECAFE), noted that
"a high probability exists that the continental shelf between
Taiwan and Japan may be one of the most prolific oil reservoirs in
While this news was greeted with some gratification in Japan, the
Republic of China (Taiwan) government --then representing the
Chinese mainland at the UN --was spurred into examining Chinese
claims to the Senkaku Islands and the seabed oilfields within their
At one point, Chinese exiles in Taiwan claimed to have "deeds" to
the islands granted to a Chinese courtier (and early patron of
Chinese universities) Sheng Xuanhuai by the Qing Dynasty's Empress
Cixi. This evidence gained currency in both Taiwan and Beijing and
was proffered as the basis of China's historic ownership of the
islands. However, recent scholarly consideration of this evidence
tends toward the view that it is fraudulent. The documents of
"deed" were not in the style of the Qing Dynasty, nor were the
seals correct, nor was the paper of the quality used in Qing
Still, today, there are Chinese commentators in Taiwan who insist
that the original deed to the Senkaku Islands was "kept in a bank
safety deposit box" in Los Angeles, in the custody of Mme Chen
Shien-chung, a "lineal granddaughter of Sheng Xuanhuai."
Although visions of Saudi-scale reservoirs in the East China Sea
have now dissipated and the territorial waters issue is now mostly
a matter of "face," oil and gas continue to be the currency of the
dispute. Japan, believing that China's main interest was oil, long
ago acquiesced in China's development of the "Chunxiao" gas beds
("Shirakaba" in Japanese), which lie astride the median line of the
overlapping 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of the two
countries --if, and only if, the Senkaku islands' EEZ is counted as
Japanese. In private conversations with Japanese officials I have
learned an ironic fact --that the Chinese seabed pipeline from the
gas field to the Chinese coast was partially financed by Japanese
Overseas Development Assistance.
In an effort to assuage strained ties with China, and especially
to ease frictions with Beijing over territorial waters, Japan has
tried to get the Chinese to accept some "joint development" of the
gas fields that straddle their respective EEZs --in return for
China's acknowledgment of Japan's legitimate claims. But China has
consistently rebuffed Japanese efforts to acknowledge that "joint
development" of the Shirakaba field is predicated on a Japanese
territorial sea claim.
Again, on June 18 the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman insisted
that "China's consistent position and stance on the East China Sea
issue have remained unchanged, Chunxiao oil and gas field falls
completely within China's sovereignty rights and has nothing to do
with joint development. When it comes to the East China Sea
demarcation, China's position has stayed unchanged that it does not
recognize the so-called 'median line.'"
By reaching out to Beijing and assisting China's development of
the Shirakaba (Chunxiao) field without first getting some Chinese
acknowledgment of Japan's territorial waters claim, Tokyo has made
a tactical blunder. China is now in a position to pump dry the
Shirakaba field and forestall Japanese action by dragging its heels
on the demarcation issue. There are, however, at least three other
fields that straddle the median line --Asunaro (Longjing), Kusunoki
(Duanqiao) and Kashi (Tianwaitan) --but their delimitations are not
dependent on the Senkaku Islands' EEZ boundary.
In 1972, Beijing's claims to the Senkaku Islands were delayed a
bit by the Cultural Revolution and the Japan-China era of good
feeling that persisted for a few years after the Beijing-Tokyo
normalization of 1972. But by 2003 China's rivalry with Japan for
the psychological leadership of Asia has impelled China to begin
flexing its maritime muscle in the East China Sea.
By August 2005, Chinese fighter aircraft were shadowing Japanese
P-3 surveillance aircraft in international waters close to the home
For the first time, the Japanese press reported several years of
previous incursions into Chinese waters and airspace by
"suspicious" Chinese vessels. "Secret" documents from the Japan
Self Defense Force reported that Chinese submarines had entered "in
the area" of Japan's territorial waters at least six times in 2003.
Chinese incursions into the Japanese EEZ became commonplace in
2004, with at least 12 EEZ violations by Chinese hydrographic
vessels by May of that year.
In June, the Japanese media reported that Chinese submarines had
entered Japanese territorial waters the previous November and had
shown themselves "very comfortable" with marine characteristics of
the Japanese coastline.
In October 2005, the fire-control radar aboard the Chinese
Sovremennyy-class warship near the Shirakaba field had "locked-on"
a Japanese P-3 patrol aircraft and there were reports that another
Chinese naval vessel's artillery radar had targeted a Japanese
coast guard vessel nearby.
Clearly, the Chinese were showing their teeth. By October 2006,
Chinese military live-fire exercises in the East China Sea were
rumored by the Hong Kong press to involve scenarios for an armed
occupation of the Senkakus.
China's territorial aggressiveness in the East China Sea has
alarmed Japan. Japan's national security bureaucracy clearly sees
China as the primary challenge in Asia and is diverting large
amounts of funding into missile defense, naval systems and new
But Beijing's diplomats are skilled --they have happily eased
their pressures on Japan to woo it away from its concerns, and
allies. And while Beijing now avoids antagonizing Tokyo directly,
it certainly welcomes Taiwan's recent involvement in the Senkakus
dispute. It helps China make the point that the issue is truly
about "Chinese nationalism," not self-serving propaganda.
China's revered strategist of Confucian times, Sun Tzu, pointed
out that while countering the enemy's strategy is of supreme
importance, "next best is to divide him from his allies." The
Senkakus issue threatens to alienate Taiwan from Japan. It also has
the potential to strain Japan's trust in the US-Japan relationship.
If the US views the recent flare-up as a minor spat between an
immature Taiwan and a boorish Japan, and mutes its position, China
may well begin to pressure Tokyo directly. Timidity on the part of
the US could serve as a catalyst for a situation that goes against
its Japanese ally, and ultimately its own interests, over the
Nothing good can come of a complacent Washington that allows
Beijing to fill the leadership vacuum in Asia. The terms of the
US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty are explicit regarding the
Senkakus. It is time for Washington to face up to its
responsibilities as an "ally" and make clear its sympathies on the
John Tkacik a
senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington,
D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served
in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.
First appeared in The Taipei Times
In March 2004, the last time controversy over the Senkaku (Diaoyutai) islands surfaced, the US State Department affirmed that the United States Mutual Security Treaty with Japan covered the islands.
John J. Tkacik, Jr.
Senior Research Fellow
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