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  • According to existing historical documents, the Diaoyutai Islands were first discovered, named, and used by the Chinese. Although long uninhabited, they were not terra nullius(land without owner) and not part of the Ryukyu Islands. Chinese ownership of the islands was widely recognized by both Japanese and Ryukyu officials before 1894.

    (1) Discovered, named, and recognized as Chinese territory

    The Diaoyutai Islands first appeared in Chinese historical records as early as the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). One of the earliest Ming records, Seeing off with a Favorable Tailwind, indicating that these islands were discovered, named and used by China. In 1372, the Ryukyu Kingdom became a tributary state of the Ming Dynasty of China and for the next five hundred years offered tribute to the emperor of China. Between 1372 and 1879, China sent twenty-four investiture missions to the Ryukyu Kingdom for the purpose of bestowing the formal title to a new Ryukyu ruler. During each of these investiture missions to the Ryukyu Kingdom, Chinese imperial envoys kept detailed mission records which were to be submitted to the Chinese Emperor upon their return and stored in government archives. The earliest official investiture mission record still in existence today dates back to 1534. Chen Kan included in his Records of the Imperial Mission to Ryukyu, the earliest official recordings of the Diaoyutai Islands. In 1556, Zheng Shungong, a Ming envoy to Japan, also recorded in A Glimpse into Japan the following passage, “Diaoyutai Island is a small islet belonging to Xiaodong [ancient name of Taiwan]”, with an illustrated map that also included the islands. This is the earliest historical record that documented the Diaoyutai Islands as belonging to Taiwan geographically.

    Throughout the Qing Dynasty, envoy mission records further specified the national boundary between China and Ryukyu Kingdom as heisuigou (or Black Water Trough, known today as the Okinawa Trough). In 1683, Wang Chi in Records of the Imperial Missions to Ryukyu described the heisuigou as “the boundary between China and foreign land”.

    Subsequent Chinese and Japanese maps, during the Qing and Tokugawa periods, also included the Diaoyutai Islands as Chinese territory. Examples include the Map of Imperial China and Foreign Lands published in China in 1863 and An Illustrated Description of the Three Countries in 1785 by Hayashi Shihei, a renowned Japanese military scholar. In the latter map, Hayashi marked the Diaoyutai Islands and China in red, and the thirty-six Ryukyu Islands in light yellow so as to indicate that the Diaoyutai Islands belonged to China and not the Ryukyu Islands.

    (2) Incorporated into the Chinese coastal defense zone

    During the Ming Dynasty, Japanese pirates ravaged the southeast coast of China. In 1561, Zheng Ruozeng showed the Diaoyutai Islands in his Coastal Defense Map. The next year, Hu Zongxian, then Minister of Defense and the commander-in-chief, included the Diaoyutai Islands in the Coastal Territories Map as part of the Compilation of Maps on Managing the Sea, thereby incorporating the islands into the defense system for China’s southeast coast.

    This practice was continued throughout the Qing dynasty. In 1683, Taiwan was officially incorporated into Chinese territory, with the Diaoyutai Islands placed under Taiwan’s jurisdiction. The reports of imperial censors in the Qing Dynasty as well as official gazetteers of Fujian Province and Taiwan Prefecture serve as the most authoritative historical records supporting the claim that the Diaoyutai Islands belong to Taiwan. For example, during the inspection tour of Taiwan in 1722, the imperial censor Huang Shujing wrote Record of Missions to Taiwan and Adjacent Waters. In volume 2, Military Defense Huang listed the patrol routes of the naval forces of Taiwan Prefecture, stating “in the seas north of Taiwan is an island Diaoyutai where a dozen large ships may be anchored.” Subsequently, Fan Cheng’s Revised Gazetteer of Taiwan Prefecture (1747) and Yu Wen-yi’s Continued Gazetteer of Taiwan Prefecture (1764) reiterated Huang’s references. In 1871, Chen Shuo-qi’s Recompiled General Gazetteer of Fujian further listed Diaoyutai Island under Kavalan Office (now Yilan County) of Taiwan in Volume 86: Coastal Defense and Strategically Important Places in all Districts These local gazetteers were official publications whose primary functions were “to record history, assist governance, and inform the populace”. Given the official and authoritative nature of these gazetteers, they serve as the manifestation and basis of the Qing government’s continuous exercise of sovereignty. These official documents prove that the Diaoyutai Islands indeed belonged to Taiwan.

    (3) Officially recognized national boundaries between China and Ryukyu Kingdom with no terra nullius in between.

    Through the Qing period, official Chinese and Ryukyu documents confirmed that the Ryukyu Islands consisted of 36 islets and there existed no land without owner between the two neighboring countries. After Japan annexed the former Ryukyu Kingdom and renamed it Okinawa Prefecture in 1879, a diplomatic stalemate ensued between China and Japan. In 1880, in an effort to reach a diplomatic settlement over Ryukyu sovereignty, Japan presented to China a proposal to divide the Ryukyu Islands between the two nations to formalize national boundaries. While China rejected the proposal, the draft treaty confirms that no terra nullius existed between China and Ryukyu.

    4. Chinese civilian use of the Diaoyutai Islands

    The waters surrounding the Diaoyutai Islands abound with bonito making it a popular fishing spot for fishermen from northeastern Taiwan (Taipei, Keelung and Suao). Due to its proximity and favorable climate, this area was also popular among fishermen who sought shelter on these islands during storms and repaired boats and equipment on their shores as well. In addition, the Chinese used to gather medicinal herbs on these islands, and salvage sunken boats in neighboring waters and then dismantle them on Diaoyutai Island, demonstrate China’s traditional use of the islands.

    5. Evaluation under International Law

    Japan’s claim of sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands by virtue of “discovery-occupation” under international law was in fact invalid ab initio (from the onset), as such claims can only be made to terra nullius (land without owner).

    (1)As explained earlier,the Diaoyutai Islands were not terra nullius, but instead have been Chinese territory and part of Taiwan for centuries before 1895. Therefore, Japan’s current claim of sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands is invalid under international law.

    Japan’s annexation of the Diaoyutai Islands was not by virtue of “discovery-occupation”, but instead a direct consequence of the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. In 1879, Japan annexed the Ryukyu Islands and embarked on a path to further expand its territory at the expense of neighboring China and Korea. According to official Meiji documents, the Japanese government’s territorial ambitions around the Diaoyutai Islands began in 1885. That year, Japanese Home Minister Yamagata Aritomo ordered Okinawa Governor Nishimura Sutezo to survey the Diaoyutai Islands and planned to set up a national landmark on the islands afterwards. However, Nishimura reported in his survey that these islands had long been discovered, named and recorded in official documents by China, and that the plan was inappropriate at that time since “this matter is not unrelated to China”. Yamagata subsequently consulted with Foreign Minister Inoue Kaoru. Inoue advised that the plan should “await a more appropriate time” since two months earlier the Shanghai-based The Shanghai Mercury issued a warning that Japan planned to seize Chinese islands near Taiwan. Inoue therefore advised the Home Ministerthat the plan should be postponed and further instructed that the matter must not be made public through official gazettes and newspapers to avoid “inviting China’s suspicion”.

    In July 1894, the First Sino-Japanese War broke out. By October, Japan had gained decisive victories both on land and at sea. Recognizing the balance of power had shifted, the Meiji government instructed Okinawa Prefecture to establish a national marker on the Diaoyutai Islands during a cabinet meeting on January 14, 1895. However,this cabinet decision was conducted in secrecy and never made public. It was not until after World War II that this cabinet decision was revealed in declassified government records included in The Japanese Diplomatic Records in 1953. Furthermore, the national marker was also not erected until 1968.

    Since the 1970’s, the Japanese government has claimed,“From 1885 on, surveys of the Senkaku Islands (the Diaoyutai Islands) had been repeatedly made by the Government of Japan through the agencies of Okinawa Prefecture and by way of other methods. Through these surveys, it was confirmed that the Senkaku Islands had been uninhabited and showed no trace of having been under the control of the Ch’ing Dynasty of China.” However, this statement is historically inaccurate and can be refuted based on official Meiji documents from 1885 to 1895 stored in the various national archives of Japan, including the Diplomatic Record Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, National Archives of Japan, and the National Institute for Defense Studies Library of the Ministry of Defense. The first crucial piece of evidence isa letter dated January 27, 1892, written by Okinawa Governor Maruoka Kanji to Navy Minister Kabayama Sukenori, requesting that the Navy Ministry dispatch the Kaimon to survey the Diaoyutai Islands given that these islands were “not sufficiently investigated” in the earlier 1885 survey. However, the Navy Ministry declined the request due to “perilous seasonal weather”. The second crucial evidence was the letter Okinawa Governor Narahara Shigeru wrote to the Home Minster on March 12, 1894, which stated, “…as no field surveys have been conducted since the investigation by the police of this prefecture in the 18th year of the Meiji Period (1885), it is difficult to provide any specific reports on them.”

    These historical documents not only serve to refute the statement by Japan’s current government “[From 1885]…surveys of the Senkaku Islands had been thoroughly made…” but also demonstrate that the Japanese government annexed the Diaoyutai Islands during the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895.

    (2) The Diaoyutai Islands should have been restored to the Republic of China along with Taiwan after the Second World War.

    As the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 was underway, in January 1895, Japan seized the opportunity to annex the Diaoyutai Islands, which were an inherent part of Taiwan. In April 1895, Japan and China signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which stipulated that China cedes to Japan “the island of Formosa [Taiwan], together with all the islands appertaining or belonging to the said Island of Formosa [Taiwan]”. For the next fifty years, the Diaoyutai Islands and Taiwan remained under Japanese rule until the tides turned again.

    On December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Republic of China declared war against Japan and repudiated all of its treaties, agreements and contracts with Japan.

    On November 26, 1943, the Republic of China, the United States and the United Kingdom promulgated the Cairo Declaration, stipulating that “all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores (Penghu), shall be restored to the Republic of China. Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed.” On July 26, 1945, countries of the Allies, namely, the Republic of China, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, issued the Potsdam Proclamation, stating that“the terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out.” Further on September 2, 1945, following the Japanese Emperor’s announcement of unconditional surrender, Japan signed the instrument of surrender in the presence of the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces, thereby showing acceptance of the Potsdam Proclamation. Moreover, the Potsdam Proclamation declares, “Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.”

    Additional, both the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty and the 1952 Peace Treaty between the Republic of China and Japan stipulate that “Japan has renounced all right, title and claim to Taiwan (Formosa) and Penghu (the Pescadores).” In addition, Article 4 of the 1952 Peace Treaty between the Republic of China and Japan further indicates, “All treaties, conventions, and agreements concluded before 9 December 1941 between Japan and China have become null and void as a consequence of the war.” Therefore the Diaoyutai Islands should be restored as the territory of the Republic of China.

    After the disputes of sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands occurred in 1971, Japan claimed that, “From the 28th year of the Meiji Period (1895) till now (1971), no objection from foreign powers had been made to Japan’s use of these islands”. Based on the historical circumstances, this claim is both invalid and misleading. During the period between 1895 and 1945, not only the Diaoyutai Islands, but also the entire island of Taiwan, were subject to Japanese occupation. Given that the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895 stipulated that China cedes to Japan “the island of Formosa [Taiwan], together with all the islands appertaining or belonging to the said Island of Formosa [Taiwan]”, China accordingly did not challenge Japanese use of either Taiwan or the Diaoyutai Islands.

    Between 1945 and 1972, while the Ryukyu Islands were put under the trusteeship of the United States government, the Diaoyutai Islands were merely subject to US administrative control, which conferred no sovereignty over them. After the war, the people of Taiwan, particularly fishermen, continued to use these islands as in the past without interference. As the Diaoyutai Islands were placed under a system of trusteeship administrated by a temporary Administering Authority, rather than being effectively controlled in the name of a sovereign State, there is no issue concerning explicitly or tacitly recognizing any claim of sovereignty by another state (none existed) over the disputed islands between 1945-1972.

    Regarding the reversion of the Diaoyutai Islands to Japan along with the Ryukyu Islands, the US government sent an official note to the Republic of China on May 26, 1971, stating that Washington’s transferring of administrative rights over these islands does not affect the ROC’s claim of sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands. On November 9, 1971, US Secretary of State William P. Rogers stated that the US took no position on the sovereignty issue over the Diaoyutai Islands and that the dispute should be resolved through negotiations between the ROC and Japan. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee further stated “the United States action in transferring its rights of administration to Japan does not constitute a transfer of underlying sovereignty nor can it affect the underlying claims of the disputants”. Washington has maintained this position in all its relevant diplomatic documents ever since.

    (Courtesy of Ministry of Foreign Affairs)