The Origins of the Senkaku Dispute

Security in Northeast Asia

The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 12, Issue 2, No. 3, January 13, 2014.
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The Origins of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Dispute between China, Taiwan and Japan
Yabuki Susumu with an introduction by Mark Selden

This article introduces Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) documents and Okinawa Reversion Treaty Hearings on the Senkaku dispute to clarify Japanese, Chinese and United States positions on the historical origins and contemporary trajectory of the Senkaku/Diaoyu (hereafter, Senkaku) dispute.


Yabuki Susumu, in a series of articles and talks, has rigorously mined the historical record of China (PRC/ROC)-Japan-US relations to illuminate the background to the dangerous conflict that presently threatens to bring war to the Western Pacific in the wake of Japanese nationalization of three of the Senkaku islands in September 2012. While other important issues add to the gravity of the conflict, including enlarged territorial claims by China, Japan and Korea in the form of advancing and defending competing claims to ADIZ in the East China and South China Seas, Yabuki shows the long trajectory of competing claims over the Senkaku dispute and the evolving policies of China, Japan and the United States in shaping it. Since so much of the international discussion of the issues has focused on China-Japan conflict, a particularly important contribution of the present paper is its clear presentation of US recognition at the highest levels of the significance of the competing territorial claims, and its maneuvering in negotiations with Taipei, Tokyo, and Beijing to shape the outcome.

The story can, of course, be traced back to earlier claims to the islands, including historical interactions involving Taiwan and Okinawan fishermen and Chinese tributary missions, to Japanese claims to the islands, and to their disposition by the US in framing and implementing the San Francisco Peace Treaty. The treaty set the stage for the transfer of the Senkaku to Japan in 1972 at the time of the reversion of administrative rights to Okinawa. But the story told here pivots on the detailed negotiations between Washington and Taipei in 1971 in the context of the US-China opening. What it shows is keen awareness of the Senkaku question by the ROC as early as 1970 in the context of US preparation for the reversion of Okinawa, and preoccupation with the issue by both Kissinger and Nixon in as they prepare the 1971 US-China opening at the time of Ping Pong Diplomacy and discussions of PRC resumption of the UN Security Council Seat. An ROC Note Verbale to the State Department of March 15, 1971 made the historical and contemporary case for Chinese possession of the Senkaku islands. Following close attention to its content, in the shadow of demonstrations over the islands on Taiwan, Kissinger handwrote in the margin, “But that is nonsense since it gives islands to Japan. How can we get a more neutral position?” The authoritative legal position of the US was given at the time of the Fulbright Hearings on reversion in the form of a memorandum of October 20, 1971 by Robert I Starr, Acting Assistant Legal Adviser for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Noting the dispute over the Senkaku between China and Japan, it noted that “The United States believes that a return of administrative rights over those islands to Japan, from which the rights were received, can in no way prejudice any underlying claims (of ROC and/or PRC).” It would remain for China and Japan to negotiate their disposition. At no time thereafter has the US legal position changed. MS

On September 11, 2013, the Japanese government decided to nationalize three islets of the Senkaku’s eight island group.

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