Editor's Choice Archive 1

Storm Brewing in the East China Sea


By Patricia Keegan

In the October 10 full page ad in the Washington Post, initiated by the Republic of China (Taiwan), and accompanied by copies of old documents supporting their claim, Taiwan appeared to be making an effort to clarify for readers some of the intricate history behind both China’s and Taiwan’s claim to sovereignty of the Diaoyutai Islands. The claims have caused a major dispute with Japan, with the Japanese government adamantly asserting that the islands belong to them. The situation has developed into a crisis as, according to an article in Japan Times on September 11, the Japanese government purchased three of the five islands from a private owner and placed them under state control. The challenge is how to avoid threats that could lead to military action between China and Japan. It may seem ludicrous that what looks like, and literally is, an uninhabited string of rocks could cause such a commotion, but it’s the waters around these islands that are rich in sea life and possibly oil.

The four photocopies, visible in the ad, show that these disputed islands lie within the borders that separate China and foreign lands. According to these official documents the islands are within the borders that separate China and “foreign lands,” and they were placed under Kavalan County, Taiwan. Included in the record is the following, “Qing China’s long and effective administration over the islands as part of Taiwan.” The documents, and all that follow, leave a trail of proof of ownership.

According to the points made in the advertisement, Japan’s claim begins in 1895 when it secretly annexed the Diaoyutai islands during the Sino-Japanese War. Today the Japanese government asserts that on January 14, 1895, their government began to rule over the islands “because they had monitored the islands and found no sign of inhabitants or no sign of control by the Qing Empire.” However, if they had looked at old Meiji documents, unearthed from their own Japanese archives, they would have read that in 1885 the Meiji government acknowledged China’s ownership of the islands. Following China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, Qing China was forced to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki on April 17, 1895, which ceded “Taiwan and its appertaining islands” to Japan. This Treaty held until after WWII.

During the war, in 1943, arrangements were made in the Cairo Declaration and later in the Potsdam Proclamation that called for restoration of the islands to their pre-1895 legal status. Japan agreed to “restore all territories taken during the war.”

But there was a big surprise in store. When Japan returned Taiwan to the ROC, both sides adopted the administrative arrangements of Taiwan with the Allied powers. But none of these entities, including ROC, had any inkling that Japan had changed the name of the islands from Diaoyutai to Senkaku. Apparently, with the name changed, the Japanese insured they would still own the islands — the idea was that because the islands weren’t mentioned by that name in the relevant legal documents, they still belonged to Japan. However, the Cairo Declaration stated that Japan “also be expelled from all other territories which she had taken by violence and greed.” Therefore, the ROC maintains the position that the islands did not need to be listed in an itemized fashion if Japan acquired them through imperialism between 1895 and the Second World War; they were to be returned. In 1972 the United States transferred administrative rights to the islands to Japan, but Washington sent an official notice to Taipei specifically stating that the transfer had no impact on the ROC’s claim to sovereignty. The US has since maintained a neutral stance on the issue of sovereignty.

In trying to resolve this claim, ROC President Ma Ying-jeou, on August 5, 2012, proposed a two stage East China Sea Initiative based on the concept that “while sovereignty is indivisible, resources should be shared.” He called on the parties concerned to replace confrontation with dialogue, shelve territorial disputes through negotiations, formulate a code of conduct and engage in joint development of resources.

President Ma’s plan gives a vision for the future — not only in the East China Sea region, but for what daily becomes more and more apparent — we are looking at a world with diminishing resources, in which we can choose either to settle disputes peacefully by working together in sharing those resources, or just resort to war, in which case everybody loses.

Hopefully, the Ma proposal of trilateral negotiations, and an East China Sea code of conduct , will show positive results and become a blueprint, not only for the peaceful settlement with Japan on the Diaoyutai Islands, but for all the predictable and similar disputes over resources about to converge. The current conflict portends what the world is facing. It portrays the urgency for governments to have plans in place to cope with similar challenges and to seek alliances willing to share, rather than hoard, resources.