The dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands has been a long and controversial one. China claims to have historical evidence showing sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands. However, Japan claims it has territorial sovereignty based on agreements, such as the Potsdam Proclamation, and has administrative rights over the island recognized by the United States. The underlying issue is there is no international agreement that grants sovereignty to either nation. This research specifically examines China’s perspective of territorial sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands. Furthermore, this research examines it through historical evidence, international agreements, and Kelsen’s Theory of Law. Lastly, this research provides three courses of action China may consider, with a most optimal action identified.
First, it is imperative to understand the location and importance of the Diaoyu Islands for both China and Japan. The Sasakawa Peace Foundation explains “the Diaoyu Islands are an uninhabited group of islands situated in the East China Sea, approximately 90 nautical miles north from the Yaeyama Islands in Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture and 120 nautical miles northeast of the island of Taiwan.”The geographical location of the Diaoyu Islands holds a significant strategic advantage, as claiming sovereignty over these islands increases the strategic military location for that nation in the Asia-Pacific region. Furthermore, the Diaoyu Islands are home to important “shipping lines, offer rich fishing grounds, and lie near potential oil and gas reserves” (Viswanathan, 2015). The strategic location and these vital resources make it understandable why both nations want to claim sovereignty.
The international community continues to ask why China believes it has sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands? China responds by insisting the Chinese people founded and named the Diaoyu Islands. Historical documents show the Diaoyu Islands were utilized by China as early as 1372 for navigational aids and operational bases for fishermen, that Chinese people have always inhabited the islands, and the Dowager Empress granted an imperial edict to a Chinese herbalist who found rare medical herbs on the islands. Thus, China believes history has shown how the Chinese have inhabited and regularly utilized the land long before Japan came into the picture. Since the Ming Dynasty the islands have been included on official maps and the Qing Dynasty even included Taiwan as having jurisdiction over the islands. China believes Japan simply utilized its victory in the Sino-Japanese war in 1895 as a means to arbitrarily annex what it called the Senkaku islands.
China furthermore states it was forced to sign a dubious “treaty” that made no mention of turning over the Diaoyu Islands. China believes both the Cairo and Potsdam agreements betrayed their own vows of restoring China’s rightful territories, including the Diaoyu Islands. First, the Potsdam Proclamation of 1945 asserted the territories were to be returned to China. However, Japan subsequently argued that there was no specific mention of the islands in the proclamation. China also emphasizes that the U.S. has violated not only the Potsdam Proclamation but the Cairo Declaration, which reverted the Diaoyu Islands to China as well. China asserts these false disputes has gone on long enough. It also feels the Japanese have mocked China by building two lighthouses on the Diaoyu Islands, violating China’s sovereignty.
What other factors does China take into consideration when claiming the Diaoyu Islands? Interestingly, there is a domestic element to this international dispute that few in the West recognize. The citizens of China have questioned the legitimacy of the Chinese government regarding its attempted resolution of the Diaoyu Islands controversy. In an effort to continue positive financial relations with Japan, China has had to keep anti-Japanese protests, specifically by college students, to a minimum. However, this has created public unrest, leading people to question the legitimacy of the current Chinese government to protect national interests. China must determine how to keep the support of the people without increasing tensions with Japan all while maintaining what it considers its rightful claim on the islands.
Japan has strategically fought for sovereignty over these islands utilizing its own central government, U.S. forces, and other bargaining options. Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty with the U.S. in 1951, concluding that the Diaoyu Islands belonged to Japan without consent from the Chinese government. By 1972, a Japanese historian evaluating the data stated, “these islands are the territory of the People’s Republic of China, the only authority over the entire China.” However, China insists Japan has continued to illegally occupy surrounding islands with no acknowledgement or punishment from the international community. Kelsen’s Theory of Law concludes treaty rights and duties only apply to those contracting members. Therefore, under Kelsen’s Theory China is not bound by the San Francisco Treaty and does not need to recognize Japan’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands. Furthermore, the San Francisco Peace Treaty was not in accordance with the Cairo Declaration or the Potsdam Declaration, making it legally a nonentity and invalid. Through these legal burdens of proof, China insists on an internationally recognized agreement with Japan in which Japan recognizes China’s rightful claim of sovereignty.
China is understandably frustrated because the only formal recognition of the Diaoyu Islands from the international community, despite all of this evidence and argumentation in favor of China, comes out on the side of Japan’s administrative control. Japan has continually argued the Potsdam Proclamation afforded sovereignty to Japan. However, China claims the Potsdam Declaration only rewarded sovereignty to the islands of “Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku and minor islands.” There was no mention of the Diaoyu Islands within the Potsdam Declaration or the Cairo Declaration. In short, multiple agreements favoring China were made and subsequently ignored. Additionally, even changing the name to ‘Senkaku’ is another direct violation of Chinese sovereignty (and blatant anti-Chinese disrespect) and should only be used for the purpose of history, international law and jurisprudence. Finally, Japan and the U.S. entered a Peace Treaty involving Chinese territory without the involvement of China.
The Diaoyu Islands are also an intricate part of China’s strategic plan to gradually build forces to deter any enemy’s will to fight in the immediate maritime region. It is imperative to China’s strategic goal of expanding and maintaining its own international economic superiority. The Diaoyu Islands hold 40,000 km2 of an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and access to the surrounding resources. Geological surveys conducted suggest there are 10-100 billion barrels of oil contained in the continental shelf. The islands hold over 11,700 square nautical miles of this petroleum potential. China therefore recognizes how these islands are crucial to gaining maritime power and economic leverage over the entire Asian maritime region.
Finally, to what degree is China willing to obtain these islands and how is China going to proceed forward? There are three potential courses of action to resolve this issue with Japan. First, China can set up a quarantine area around the Diaoyu Islands and create a forced separation. However, China must consider the U.S. military’s intervention on such quarantine activity. This could also create tensions between China and Taiwan because some of Taiwan supports Japanese claims. Second, China can try to strike a diplomatic deal with Japan in which China gets the islands. In exchange, China can give protection to Japan from potential North Korean attacks. This could enhance the relationship between the Chinese and Japanese military and turn tension into soft partnership. Third, China can take the Diaoyu Islands by force. However, if a conflict does erupt, then China must consider the consequences. The U.S. has a Security Treaty with Japan to intervene on its behalf in the event such a conflict arises. China prefers to utilize this option as a last resort.
Teo and Rose explain for China to maintain its goal of becoming a high-level power it must seek diplomatic solutions with Japan. Furthermore, the difference in political systems create structural contradictions, which influence Sino-Japanese relations. If resorting to physical conflict, this puts Chinese economic and geopolitical progression to a halt. The risk involved with taking the islands by force includes deteriorating economic/geopolitical relationships and the possibility of U.S. military involvement. At this time, China is unlikely to take such a bold risk.
In sum, China asserts history, diplomacy, law, geopolitics, and classical realist theories of power give it every right to claim sovereignty over the islands. China’s most optimal solution is to resolve this dispute through diplomatic means to protect its long-term political and economic strategies. But the rest of the world should recognize that the continuous progression of Chinese power on the global stage means that one day may come where it does not need to listen to the opinions of others, especially when those opinions seem to the Chinese to be against the national interests of China.