Which of China or Japan has the stronger claim to the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, the dispute that has driven their relations to the lowest point in 40 years?
China’s case is that the islands, having been appropriated by imperial Japan, were forfeit when it surrendered to the Allies in 1945. Japan argues that China acquiesced in Tokyo’s annexation of the uninhabited islands in the 1890s and only changed its tune after oil and gas reserves were found nearby in the 1960s. From my reading of the facts neither argument can be sustained.
The Potsdam Declaration of the surrender terms said “Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we [the Allies] determine.” The earlier Cairo Declaration – also cited by advocates of China’s case – was more polemical but less precise. The Allies’ war aim was to force Japan to give up territories “stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa and the Pescadores,” adding that it would be expelled “from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed.” Violence was not used to annex the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (contrary to some accounts they were not acquired through the Sino-Japanese War) and greed is a shaky basis for apportioning blame in international affairs.
When Japan accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration the surrender document signed in September 1945 set in train arrangements for the country’s demilitarization and occupation. It did not, however, place conditions on a future sovereign Japan – no more, say, than the surrender document General Percival signed in 1942 could be considered to bind the present government of Singapore.
Some commentators treat the Potsdam Declaration as if it were a lodestone for determining the rights and wrongs of states’ actions in 2013. They argue that the Allies’ war aims were circumvented during and after the occupation by conservative forces in Washington and Tokyo and that that false outcome, frozen in time by the Cold War, can only now be put right as American power declines and China obtains the means to defend its interests. Since any argument mounted on the basis of the Potsdam Declaration also calls into question Japan’s sovereignty over the Okinawan islands, the fate of a few specks of land in the East China Sea may open a Pandora’s box.
The international agreement more relevant to the case than either the Potsdam or Cairo documents is the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, which specifically addressed the scope of Japan’s postwar sovereignty. Under the treaty Japan renounced “right, title and claim to Formosa and the Pescadores.” Some regard this provision as crucial because the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands traditionally were part of Formosa, or Taiwan. But early drafts of the treaty, which went into greater detail than the final document, did not treat the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as part of Taiwan/China.
Not only did the San Francisco Treaty fail to specify which state had sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, Article 3 bestowed upon the United States trusteeship of territories south of 29 degrees north latitude including the Okinawan islands, as well as – in the view of Japanese and the American officials – the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Prior to the reversion of these territories to Japan in 1971, the PRC’s state-controlled media adopted the same perspective, notwithstanding that both China and Taiwan would challenge the legitimacy of the reversion (neither of the rival claimants to represent the government of China, communist or nationalist, had been invited to the peace conference).
It is apparent that no existing international agreement clarifies the sovereignty question. The search for a solution, therefore, must focus back on how Japan and China managed the issue following the normalization of their relations in 1972 and why that modus operandi has broken down. In brief, the two countries preferred to let the issue rest in the background so they could get on with more important business. Now, for reasons to do with national pride, a shift in the regional power balance and the exigencies of internal politics, both find it useful to assert their claims and muscle up to each other. Claims of an imminent risk of military conflict, in my opinion, under-estimate the strategic patience of the two old rivals. There are inherent dangers in having patrol vessels shadowing each other in the disputed waters day after day but the situation currently seems to be under control.
It is instructive, meanwhile, to look back at the preparations for the San Francisco peace conference and find that American officials identified “psychological disadvantages in seeming to fence Japan in” by imposing a continuous line around it. They felt that rigid territorial containment could prove provocative: an interesting perspective in light of the current debate on the best response to a resurgent China. The aspect I wish to stress is the value of ambiguity and flexibility as instruments of statecraft. They were once also the preferred tools of those charged with guiding Sino-Japanese relations. Diplomatic ambiguity, while much maligned, can derive from a commonsense refusal to second-guess the future; it can again serve the interests of all sides much better than the simplistic formulas of hardliners who dress up expediency as principle.
Those who argue that the treaty planners of 1951 were irresponsible for failing to settle the territorial issue in definitive terms must believe nations will always act according to the prescriptions of previous generations. Patently this is not how the real world operates. China and Japan have changed dramatically since 1951; they have potent weapons, unimaginable back then, for future mutual support or mutual harm. It is beholden on responsible leaders to manage bilateral relations in the light of existing realities, not according to the dusted-off slogans and grievances of the past.
Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for 11 years. His latest book is Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story