Much Ado Over Small Islands: The Sino-Japanese Confrontation over Senkaku/Diaoyu

Since 2010, the China-Japan relationship has been rocked by tensions over the Senkaku 尖閣/Diaoyu 钓鱼 Islands. In 2010, a Chinese fishing boat captain was arrested by the Japanese Coast Guard and the Chinese government responded by cancelling high-level political talks and temporarily suspending a series of bilateral student exchanges. Then, in September 2012, the Japanese government made the decision to purchase three islands in the Senkaku/Diaoyu chain in order to prevent Tokyo’s right-wing mayor, Shintaro Ishihara, from purchasing the islands himself. This move sparked mass protests throughout China. From Beijing’s perspective, Japan had changed the status quo, and had violated an earlier agreement that the two sides ‘shelve’ the dispute and leave the issue for future generations to resolve. Since September 2012, the two countries have carried out frequent air and sea-based patrols around the disputed territory, raising concerns that an act of miscalculation by one of the many law enforcement, surveillance or military vessels could trigger a much larger international security crisis.

In a recent extended essay the noted historian of Japan Gavan McCormack examines the basis of Japanese claims to the Senkaku Islands. The following is an extract from a longer article published in The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, in which the author explores both the history of Japanese and Chinese claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, as well as the Okinawan perspective on the dispute. In regard to other regional territorial disputes, see David Rosenburg’s ‘The Paradox of the South China Sea Disputes’, also published in The China Story Journal.

Gavan McCormack is a coordinator of The Asia-Pacific Journal, emeritus professor of The Australian National University and co-author, with Satoko Oka Norimatsu, of Resistant Islands – Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States, Rowman and Littlefield and Japanese edition from Horitsu Bunkasha, 2013 (Korean and Chinese editions forthcoming). Much of his work may also be consulted through the index to The Asia-Pacific Journal.

We are grateful to Amy King of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific for editing this shorter version of McCormack’s essay, and to the author for his support for our publication.—The Editors


More than six decades on from the San Francisco Treaty that purportedly resolved the Asia-Pacific War and created a system of peace, East Asia in 2013 remains troubled by the question of sovereignty over a group of tiny, uninhabited islands.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands group comprises five uninhabited islands or islets (plus several even smaller outcrops), known respectively under their Japanese and Chinese names as Uotsuri/Diaoyudao, Kita Kojima/Bei Xiaodao, Minami Kojima/Nan Xiaodao, Kuba/Huangwei and Taisho/Chiwei. The islands are located in relatively shallow waters at the edge of the Chinese continental shelf, 330 kilometres east of the China mainland coast, 170 kilometres northeast of Taiwan, and about the same distance north of Yonaguni (or Ishigaki) islands in the Okinawa group. They are separated from the main Okinawan islands by a deep (maximum 2,940 metres) underwater trench known as the ‘Okinawa Trough’, or in China as the ‘Sino-Ryukyu Trough’.[1]

Chinese documents from the fourteenth century record and name the islands as important navigational points on the maritime route between coastal China (Foochow) and the Ryukyu kingdom capital at Shuri, especially necessary for tribute missions during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Ownership, however, did not greatly concern anyone. The European state system with its Westphalian notions of sovereignty was an alien concept.

Two late-nineteenth century developments wrought decisive change to this view however. In 1879, Japan’s Meiji government forcibly extinguished the Ryukyu kingdom’s residual sovereignty (building upon the partial subjection accomplished by Satsuma following its invasion in 1609), and incorporated the Ryukyus (as Okinawa) within the Japanese state. Japan’s unilateral assimilation of the Ryukyus in 1879 did not affect the status of the tiny Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, but just five years later, in 1884, a Japanese merchant, Koga Tatsushiro, settled on Senkaku. Initiating a business in collecting albatross feathers and tortoise shells, Koga submitted a claim through the newly established Okinawa prefecture to have the islands declared as Japanese territory. His claim was based on the fact that the islands were unclaimed and unoccupied. The Meiji government in Tokyo delayed a decision on the matter for a full ten years, fearful of rousing China’s suspicions at a time when it worried that China might enjoy naval supremacy. That anxiety only eased following the major battles in which Japan decisively defeated Qing China in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). In January 1895, the Japanese cabinet resolved to accept the Koga proposal, and annexed two of the islands (Uotsuri and Kuba) as part of Yaeyama County, Okinawa prefecture. The following year it leased four of the islands (Uotsuri, Kota Kojima, Minami Kojima, and Kuba) to Koga on a thirty-year, fee-less, basis, and in 1900 adopted the name ‘Senkaku Islands’ as a translation of the British name ‘Pinnacle Rocks’. Finally, in 1926, Japan converted the four-island lease into a freehold grant to the Koga family.[2]

As Japan expanded its empire in East Asia during the first half of the twentieth century, Koga Tatsushiro maintained his business on the islands. By 1910, he employed as many as 248 people in catching, drying, processing, and canning fish. However, around 1940 he withdrew and abandoned the islands under the shadow of war.[3]

In the wake of the Second World War, Japan and China faced far greater problems than the issue of sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. In the immediate post-war period, Japan’s Foreign Ministry made only brief reference to the islands, dismissing them in 1947 as ‘uninhabited and of little importance’.[4] China (Beijing)’s Foreign Ministry seems also to have had little interest in the islands. In a draft paper prepared in 1950, soon after the Chinese Communist party came to power, it referred simply to the islands by their Japanese name as ‘part of Okinawa.[5] Between 1951 and 1972, the islands were formally administered by the United States.[6] Administrative control over the Senkaku islands was transferred to Japan during the US-Japan negotiations over Okinawa in 1969-1972, but the question of sovereignty over the islands was left unresolved. This was an implicit admission that the islands might be subject to competing claims, and it is a position that the United States has held to this day.

Evaluating Japan’s Claim

Japan’s claim to the Senkaku islands rests on three fundamental assertions: First, that the islands were not ‘war spoils,’ (or ‘stolen territories’ in the words of the 1943 Cairo Agreement) but terra nullius, territory un-owned and unclaimed by any other country. Second, that the Japanese occupation had been unchallenged for at least seventy years, from the act of annexation in 1895 to 1968, when the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) published a report indicating that island ownership might carry potentially valuable resource rights to a sector of the East China Sea. Third, that the islands are in some, almost metaphysical, sense part of Japan’s intrinsic, inalienable territory, what it refers to as ‘koyu no ryodo’ 固有領土.

The first claim, based on terra nullius, is of dubious merit today, if only for the reason that it harks back to a time when imperialist countries divided up the world at their will. In some countries, such as Australia, terra nullius has been judicially overruled at the highest court level.[7] It stretches credulity today to argue that the Japanese annexation was justified on the principle of terra nullius, rather than being related to Japan’s victory over China during the first Sino-Japanese war, and more broadly to Japan’s military and diplomatic advantage over China.

The second claim is also somewhat disingenuous, relying as it does on construing China’s silence on the Japanese occupation of the islands until 1970 as consent. International law offered no system to which aggrieved colonial or semi-colonial countries, such as China, could appeal these territorial matters. Furthermore, no such recourse was open to China (whether the Republic or the People’s Republic) until the US and Japan first made a decision on the reversion of Okinawa in 1972. That set of negotiations, between 1969 and 1972, focussed attention on what was and what was not ‘Okinawa’, and to whom it should be ‘returned’. Once the US returned administrative authority over the Senkaku to Japan in 1972 – the same year in which the PRC and Japan re-established ‘normal’ diplomatic relations – it became evident that China did not consent to Japanese sovereignty over the islands but rather acknowledged the existence of a dispute. On two occasions – in 1972 and 1972 – Chinese premiers Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping stated in meetings with their Japanese counterparts that the disputed territory should be ‘shelved’ so as not to complicate the normalization process.[8] Today, the Japanese Foreign Ministry adopts the improbable position that there was no such ‘shelving’ arrangement.[9] While it seems clear there was no formal diplomatic document to such effect, however, the exchanges recorded above were not trivial. What seems likely is that both sides stated their respective positions but chose to avoid formal negotiations which might have delayed general settlement.[10]

The third claim, based on the concept of koyu no ryodo (‘intrinsic’ or ‘inalienable’ national territory), implies that the Senkaku islands have long been ‘part’ of the Ryukyu islands. The word ‘koyu’ (Chinese: ‘guyou’ 固有) has no precise English translation and the concept is unknown in international law and foreign to discourse on national territory in much, if not most, of the world.[11] The concept seems to have been invented in Japan around 1970, along with the term Hoppo Ryodo 北方領土 (Northern Territories) as part of the effort to reinforce linguistically Japan’s claim to what had been known as the Southern Kurile Islands.[12] It was subsequently adopted to underline the Japanese claim to Takeshima (Dokdo) against South Korea, and then to the Senkaku islands (against China and Taiwan).

However, the claim that the Senkaku islands are part of Japan’s ‘intrinsic’ territory is also a dubious proposition. Japan did not consider the islands to be part of the ‘thirty-six islands’ making up the Ryukyus in pre-modern times, nor did Japan consider them part of the Ryukyus when the prefecture was established in 1879. Rather, the Senkaku islands were tacked on to the Ryukyus sixteen years later. Referring to the Senkaku islands as ‘intrinsic’ or ‘inalienable’ is also an ironic appellation for islands which were unknown in Japan until the late-nineteenth century, were then identified from British naval references, were not declared as Japanese territory until 1895, and were not formally named by Japan until 1900.

Furthermore, when the Government of Japan ‘nationalized’ the ‘Senkakus’ in 2012, it acted in relation only to three of the islands nominally in private hands. Two other islands were excluded, including one that still remains in private hands. These two islands are commonly known, even to the Japanese Coastguard, by their Chinese names, Huangwei and Chiwei, rather than their Japanese names, Kuba and Taisho. Moreover, these two islands have remained under uncontested US control – as a bombing range – since the mid-1950s. Neither the Japanese national government nor any metropolitan government has ever complained about the status of these two islands, or sought their return. Responding on behalf of the government in 2010 to a Diet question as to why no effort had been made to recover the islands, a spokesman said that the US side ‘had not indicated its intention to return them’.[13] In other words, Japan would not dream of seeking their return unless the US first indicated that it would be permissible to do so. It means that, however bold Japan might be in contesting China’s position, courage deserts Japan’s leaders when facing the United States. Whatever ‘koyu’ means to Japan, it is apparently not inconsistent with occupancy by another country (even if that other country should choose to bomb the islands to smithereens), so long as that ‘other country’ is the United States.

While the Japanese case for exclusive entitlement to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands may be stronger than that of China’s on a strict reading of international law, international law fails to take into consideration moral issues such as Japan’s record of imperialism and war. International law is not a set of abstract and transcendent principles but an evolving expression of global power relations, reflecting at any one time the interests of dominant global powers.[14]

Given this, three concluding points may be made:

  • First, it is hard to imagine any advance on the current, increasingly militarized confrontation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands unless and until Japan concedes that there is a dispute. The longer it resists doing so, the greater the loss of face it stands to suffer when eventually, likely under US pressure, Japan finds that it has to;
  • Second, the issue is not simply territorial but deeply rooted in history. Japanese tend to forget; Chinese are unable to forget. The ‘Senkaku’ issue today carries a ‘blowback’ quality of unassuaged Chinese suspicion over Japan’s long neglected or insufficiently resolved war responsibility, the high-level denials of Nanjing, the periodic right-wing attempts to sanitize history texts, the refusal to accept formal legal responsibility for the victims of the Asia-wide ‘Comfort Women’ slavery system, the periodic visits by Prime Ministers (notably Koizumi, 2001-2006) and Diet Members to Yasukuni.[15] In April 2013, Deputy PM Aso and 168 members of the Lower House participated in the spring rites at Yasukuni; and,
  • Third, Japanese elites and the mass media alike seem to have lost the capacity to appreciate the Chinese position or to achieve a self-critical awareness of their own. While projecting a picture of China as threatening and ‘other,’ they pay minimal attention either to the circumstances surrounding the Chinese claim to the islands or to the reasons for the general suspicion of Japan. They take for granted that Japan ‘owns’ the islands, blame China for the recent crisis over these islands, and have no sense of responsibility for the trashing of the ‘shelving’ agreements of 1972 and 1978 (whose existence, for the most part, they simply deny).[16] Japan’s claim is rhetorical, ambiguous, manipulative, and hostile to compromise or negotiation, yet few doubt that the Japanese position is ‘fundamentally solid and quite tenable under existing international law’.[17]


Further Reading:



[1] Guo Rongxing, ‘Territorial disputes and seabed petroleum exploration’, The Brookings Institution, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, September 2010, p.23.

[2] See Ivy Lee and Fang Ming, ‘Deconstructing Japan’s claim of sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands’, p.7, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 31 December 2012.

[3] Hosaka Masayasu and Togo Kazuhiko, Nihon no ryodo mondai, Tokyo: Kakugawa shoten, 2012, p.119.

[4] Foreign Office, Japanese Government, Minor Islands Adjacent to Japan Proper, Part 2, Ryukyu and other Nansei Islands, March 1947, p.2.

[5] ‘ “Senkaku wa Ryukyu no ichibu”, Chugoku, 76 nenkan igi tonaezu – sekiyu shigen de ryoyu shucho’, Jiji, 20 December 2012. Also ‘Chugoku, “Senkaku wa Ryukyu no ichibu” to ninshiki, 50 nen no gaiko bunsho de’, Asahi shimbun, 21 December 2012.

[6] Edict No 27 of the (US controlled) Government of the Ryukyus in 1953 formally defined the geographic limits of the US Trust territory to include the Senkaku’s. That unilateral act served to extend the bounds of the Ryukyus unilaterally and illegally, according to China (see Renmin ribao, 10 May 2013).

[7] ‘Eddie Mabo vs Queensland’, 1988 and 1992 in the High Court of Australia.

[8] ‘Senkaku mondai o do omou ka’, or ‘What do you think about the Senkaku islands?’ The Japan-China Summit meeting between Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and Premier Zhou Enlai on September 27, 1972’ reproduced in Lee and Ming, op.cit. p.36; Toyoshita Narahiko, ‘Senkaku mondai’ to wa nani ka, Tokyo: Iwanami gendai bunko, 2012, pp.48-50; and, Tabata Mitsunaga, ‘Ryoyuken mondai o meguru rekishiteki jujitsu’, Sekai, December 2012, pp.104-113. See also Yabuki Susumu; Gavan McCormack and Satoko Oka Norimatsu, Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States, Rowman and Littlefield, 2012, pp.216-217.

[9] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘The Senkaku Islands’, March 2013.

[10] Tabata Mitsunaga, ‘Ryoyuken mondai o meguru rekishiteki jijitsu’, Sekai, December 2012, pp.104-113, at pp.107-108.

[11] For discussion of this point, Toyoshita Narahiko, ‘ “Senkaku konyu” mondai no kansei’, Sekai, August 2012, pp.41-49 (later resumed in his book, ‘Senkaku mondai’ to wa nani ka, Iwanami gendai bunko, 2012.)

[12] Wada Haruki, Ryodo mondai o do kaiketsu suru ka, Tokyo: Heibonsha shinsho, 2012, pp.23-33.

[13] Toyoshita, ‘Senkaku konyu’, p.42.

[14] Yabuki, interviewed by Mark Selden, p.13.

[15] Zhang Ning, ‘‘Diaoyudao’ no haigo no Chugoku no shisoteki bunki’, Gendai shiso, December 2012, pp.104-112, at p.106.

[16] For the Congressional Research Service discussion, Maritime Territorial Disputes in East Asia: Issues for Congress, p.16 (fn.24).

[17] Togo Kazuhiko, ‘Japan’s territorial problem: the Northern Territories, Takeshima, and the Senkaku islands’, The National Bureau of Asian Research, Commentary, 8 May 2012. And see Togo and Kosaka, op.cit.