The fundamental importance of archival records and data to study territorial histories has been established time and again. They provide evidence of activities and assist in shaping profiles of states, institutions, and individuals as seen from the prism of history.
When archives capture and preserve moments of the times gone by, they play a pivotal role in confirming identities, long after memory has faded.
A case in point is the falsification of history through fabricated and deceptive historical narratives that have become a defining trait of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These are used by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to further its expansionist objectives of redrawing Asian frontiers.
It is to counter these fibs put forth by China that archival records remain increasingly essential in the context of fact-based narratives on territorial issues.
China’s 1920 Admission is Not Lost History
It is time for China to unambiguously admit that the Republic of China acknowledged the Senkaku Islands as part of the Okinawa District of the Japanese Empire by means of an official letter of appreciation issued in 1920 by the Republic of China’s consul stationed in Nagasaki.
This incident, which involved an emergency rescue mission, is recorded archival evidence.
The contents of the letter thanked the people of Ishigakijima for rescuing dozens of Chinese fishermen who were washed ashore on one of the islands in the Senkaku chain in Okinawa Prefecture. The same letter explicitly acknowledged that the Chinese consul recognized the islands as Japanese territory.
The letter was first cited as evidence in the December 1972 edition of the Okinawa Quarterly, reading as follows:
During the winter of the eighth year of the Republic of China (1919), Guo Heshun, and thirty-one other fishermen from Hueiʼan Prefecture, Fujian Province, were met with contrary winds and drifted to Wayo Island, Senkaku Islands, Yaeyama District, Okinawa Prefecture, Empire of Japan. With the earnest rescue by Mr. Tamaesu from Ishigaki Village, the fishermen were able to survive and return to their homeland. Deeply moved by such neighboring sympathy and willingness to perform charity without hesitance, I hereby present this certificate to express my gratitude and thankfulness.
Feng Mian, Consul of the Republic of China in Nagasaki
May 20th The Ninth Year of the Republic of China 
Senkaku in The Okinawa Reversion
The reversion of Okinawa added to the historical documentation of the Senkakus. The United States signed the Okinawa Reversion Treaty on June 17, 1971, returning Okinawa and all its islands to Japan, submitting the treaty to the U.S. Senate for ratification. The Senate ratified the treaty on November 10, 1971.
A letter dated October 20, 1971, in the record of the Senate ratification proceedings, explained what is covered by the treaty as follows: “the terms and conditions for the reversion of the Ryukyu Islands, including the Senkakus.” It was signed by Robert Starr, acting as Assistant Legal Adviser for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and issued on the instructions of the U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers.
Another statement by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued on March 8, 1972, on the “Rights to Ownership over the Senkaku Islands” made key assertions interpreted as follows:
- Japan conducted a deliberate investigation on the islands between 1885 and 1895 and confirmed that China did not exercise control over the islands and that they were terra nullius. The Japanese Cabinet decision of January 14, 1895, incorporated the Senkaku Islands into Japanese territory.
- The Senkaku Islands were not included in Taiwan and the Pescadores, which were ceded by Article 2 of the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. The Senkaku Islands were not part of the territory which Japan relinquished under the San Francisco Peace Treaty.
- The Senkaku Islands were legitimately transferred to Japan through the Okinawa Reversion Treaty of 1971.
- There was Chinese acquiescence until 1969 to 1970.
International Rule of Law as a Cornerstone of Sovereignty
Institutionally, sovereignty revolves around the normative understanding and acceptance of political authority and international recognition. It is often interpreted to be the immoveable cornerstone of the world order based on the rule of international law.
Traditionally, sovereignty has been conceived of as a singular, unified concept. Recalling what German-American realist thinker, Hans Morgenthau, argued in his seminal 1960 work, Politics among Nations–The Struggle for Power and Peace, “If sovereignty means supreme authority, it stands to reason that no two, or more, entities can be sovereign within the same time and space.”
This primarily renders sovereignty as the final and absolute authority when spoken of in a political comity. Placing this in the contemporary context, there are multiple and overlapping challenges to sovereignty and imbricating visions due to increase in global flows of commerce and humanity, and burgeoning economic and political interdependence.
Analyzing China’s Post-Cold War Sovereignty Claims
As per its sovereignty game framework, China began to hinge its post-Cold War approach to territorial dispute settlement on Beijing’s ability to deftly leverage its economic relationship with the nations whose territory it chose to contest.
Tools of analysis do establish that where China is concerned, traditional relationships between territorial disputes and economics seem to be collapsing in the short- and medium-term. The evolving pattern between China and any nation on the receiving end of its pressure is one that negatively affects the latter’s economic position, while simultaneously undermining its unquestioned sovereignty through repeated military and paramilitary incursions into territory China unilaterally labels as ‘disputed’. China’s unilateral aggressions with India in the trans-Himalayan border regions, and with Japan in the Senkaku Islands, are factual demonstrations of the argument.
According to a content analysis of the editions of the Peking Review published in the two years between February 1969 and February 1971, there was relatively little attention paid to Japan prior to the autumn of 1969. Thereafter, there was a noticeable and steady upswing in the space devoted to Japan until February 1971.
During the initial few months of this period, the space devoted to Japan was consistently less than that on either the United States or the Soviet Union. Thereafter, the total number of pages devoted to Japan exceeded those on the Soviet Union for every month from November 1969 to February 1971, despite China’s major and logically more immediate concern of the expanding Indochina war.
Review of these changes in China’s position and interest in the Senkaku Islands substantiates the argument that China “discovered” their own claims to the Senkaku Islands when the breakthrough detection of huge deposits of oil and hydrocarbons in the waters surrounding the Senkakus was made in 1969.
Author: Dr. Monika Chansoria
Dr. Monika Chansoria, an expert on China and Asian politics and security, is the only Indian-origin social scientist to have authored a comprehensive book exclusively on the subject of Senkaku Islands, titled China, Japan and Senkaku Islands: Conflict in the East China Sea Amid an American Shadow (Routledge © 2018). She is a senior fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo and the author of five books on Asian security. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of The Japan Institute of International Affairs or any other organization with which the author is affiliated.