Demystifying China: Competing Claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

Authored by:  Daniel T. Murphy

China’s claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is based on the country’s mapping, documenting, fishing and use of the islands for navigation purposes since 1403.  China argues: (a) until 1900, the islands had only a Chinese name (Diaoyu Islands); (b) Tokyo had declared that it would not annex the islands as part of the Ryuku annexation in 1879 to avoid war with China, and (c) Japan took the islands as spoils of war at the end of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895.  As the “victor” in the Second World War, the PRC (and the ROC) argue that the islands should have been returned to China, rather than placed under U.S. control at the end of the war.  In a September 2012 Ministry of Foreign Affairs white paper, Beijing stated that Japan’s purchase and nationalization of the islands “grossly violates China’s territorial sovereignty and seriously tramples on historical facts and international jurisprudence.”

Japan claims the Senkaku Islands were uninhabited islands (terra nullius), and therefore open for the taking in 1895.  Today, Japan claims ownership of the islands based on its lengthy de facto occupation between 1895 and 1945, and since 1971, when the U.S. turned over administrative control of both Okinawa and the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands to the Japanese government (The U.S. did not take a stand on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands).  Japan also says China’s counter-claim to the islands was inconsistent until oil and gas fields were discovered in the area in the late 1960s.  In September 2012, Tokyo purchased several of the islands from a private Japanese owner, in order to reduce tensions that had been caused by recent activist landings on the islands.  Since then, PRC surveillance ships have been sailing to the islands to assert Beijing’s territorial claims.  In December, the PRC overflew the islands, violating Japanese airspace.  The Japanese government protested.  In China, protesters attacked the Japanese embassy and Japanese businesses.

Copyright Daniel T. Murphy 2013.