China has a long history of distorting its own long history. While civilizations everywhere bend the historical narrative to their own purposes, justifying and even glorifying the present by rearranging events in the past, China has proven particularly adept at this universal practice — probably the result of thousands of years of experience.
For example, Qin Shihuangdi, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), ordered the execution of hundreds of scholars and the burning of thousands of books in an attempt to shore up his own rule and erase any record of competing claims to the throne.
This practice was repeated again and again as successive dynasties and failed attempts at dynastic renewal took the historical stage. When Mao Zedong and his Chinese Communist Party (CCP) commanded the destruction of Confucian and Buddhist relics and books throughout China and the massive purges — often including torture and murder — of even mildly dissenting intellectuals, the Chairman was merely following a program of historical cleansing as old as Chinese history itself.
Ongoing Revisionism of the Chinese Past
Sadly, this practice continues today. Indeed, in many ways it has gotten much worse. The People’s Republic of China, which has committed genocide against the Mongolian and Tibetan people and is currently ramping up the ethnic dismemberment of Uighurs and other non-Han peoples in East Turkestan, has become so rich and powerful that it is now able to project its malign power outward from the continent and into its littoral waters and far beyond.
As Beijing’s image of the Sinosphere rapidly expands, China’s neighbors are steadily losing territory to the aggressive policies of a resurgent Chinese ethno-communism. But even as the notes change, the song remains the same.
The tactic, now as in the days of the Qin emperor, is to twist the historical record to fit the expediencies of the hour. Anyone who wants to know what China is really up to — that is, anyone who wants solid facts and reliable history over CCP rhetoric and propaganda — must tune out Beijing and tune in to the voices that have been washed out by the People’s Republic.
New Book Brings Facts, Rigid Analysis to the Debate
This is where Monika Chansoria comes in. Chansoria, a senior fellow in the China program at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, has a PhD in international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University and is one of the world’s leading authorities on Chinese aggression.
Hailing from a country, India, which has experienced no small share of CCP territorial overreach, Dr. Chansoria brings a no-nonsense, hard-nosed empirical approach to her work.
In her latest book, China, Japan, and Senkaku Islands: Conflict in the East China Sea Amid an American Shadow, Dr. Chansoria strips away opinion and talking points to get down to the brass tacks of the historical ownership of the Senkaku Islands, Japan’s outpost in what is arguably the most dangerous body of water on the planet.
The Facts of the Case
The Senkaku Islands — which the Chinese government refers to as Diaoyutai — comprise a handful of rocky outcroppings and jagged islets situated just west and north of the midpoint along an imaginary line drawn between Naha, Okinawa, and Taipei, Taiwan, and very roughly equidistant among Taiwan, the main Okinawan islands, and the Chinese mainland. Metaphorically, too, the Senkakus are at the center of disputes among Japan, China, and Taiwan.
Historically, however, the record is clear. As Chansoria writes, it is undisputed that the Japanese government incorporated the Senkakus in 1895, when, on January 21, “Japanese Prime Minister [Ito] Hirobumi gave his final approval to the Cabinet decision [to place the islands under the jurisdiction of Okinawa Prefecture], and the scheme of Meiji Japan to incorporate the disputed islands, planned long before, […] was now, at last, realized.”
Thereafter, the Republic of China never disputed Japan’s incorporation of the islands into Okinawa. The Beijing government even wrote a letter of thanks in 1919 to Japan for rescuing some three dozen fishermen whose vessels were blown out to sea and “drifted to Wayo Island, Senkaku Islands, Yaeyama District, Okinawa Prefecture, Empire of Japan.”
More Historical Distortion
And yet, the Chinese offer an alternative history. Japan incorporated the Senkakus in 1895 as terra nullius, an important distinction in international law because it indicates that no government had ever claimed and administered the islands before. As terra nullius, the Senkakus would have been fair game for any government which could lay claim to and incorporate them — precisely what Japan duly did.
China, however, argues that Chinese explorers discovered and incorporated the islands in 1372, during the early years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Therefore, according to the Chinese position, the Senkakus were not terra nullius when Japan incorporated them in 1895.
An Intractable Divide
This sets up an intractable divide between Japan and China over the Senkakus, because all subsequent actions by both parties undergo radical reinterpretation, depending upon whether the Senkakus were terra nullius in 1895, or else were somehow part of the Ming Dynasty’s administrative purview.
Japan claims that there was no mention of the Senkakus in the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895, which ended the Sino-Japanese war (1894-95) and ceded Taiwan to Japan. China, by contrast, claims that the Senkakus were included in the Treaty of Shimonoseki (although there is no explicit mention of the islands anywhere in the treaty).
Upon Japan’s defeat in World War II, her previous imperial possessions reverted to their original owners, with Taiwan and surrounding islands going back to the Republic of China (which subsequently suffered a defeat of its own). The PRC, which claims title to Taiwan as a part of China, claims by extension that the Senkakus, which the PRC argues are a part of Taiwan, are therefore, today, a part of greater China.
Japan’s position, however, is that the Senkakus belonged to no one in 1895 when they were taken up as Japanese territory (an action later repeatedly validated and acknowledged by China). Therefore, the Treaty of Shimonoseki does not apply to the Senkakus.
The islands remained firmly a part of Okinawa throughout the postwar period, reverting, along with the rest of Okinawa, to Japanese jurisdiction in 1972. (The transfer of jurisdiction over Okinawa after 1945, and the ensuing decades of military presence on the islands, and in the rest of Japan, explains the “American shadow” part of Chansoria’s title.)
No Evidence of Chinese Settlement or Administration
Chansoria meticulously parses the conflicting claims to the Senkakus and comes down firmly on the side of Japan. At best, she states, the Chinese used the islands only for the occasional gathering of medicinal herbs.
There was never a Chinese settlement on the Senkakus, either civilian or military, and the islands were never under Chinese control even after the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) incorporated Taiwan in 1683.
New Situations, Old Tactics
Just as damaging to the PRC’s current insistence that the Senkakus are a part of China is that the PRC was silent about the Senkakus until as late as 1971, when the Chinese “Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement […] pointing out that Diaoyu and its affiliated islands are an inseparable part of Chinese territory.” This tactic is redolent of the ancient Qin, which also saw history as a malleable resource to be deployed as the current situation required.
There is another tactical similarity which becomes apparent in reading Chansoria’s fine and exhaustively-researched volume. Just as China has long wrapped present policy prerogatives in the swaddling of “history,” however contrived, China’s encroachment on its neighbors’ island holdings is a slow and careful process of adding thin tissues of fait accompli layer by layer until the desired outcome is achieved.
Aggression by Slow Degrees
When China wants an island that belongs to someone else, it doesn’t land troops on the beach immediately. Instead, it probes with “fishing vessels” working for the Chinese navy. It anchors warships in successively thicker layers around the island in question. It encircles the island with a ring of outlying ships. It declares air defense identification zones (ADIZs) above the place — until, eventually, it has wrapped the island in various trappings of Chinese control. Before anyone notices the game, it is over. The Chinese themselves call this the “cabbage” method, surreptitiously adding leaf to leaf until whatever China wants has been gained.
The same thing happens with history. The PRC apparently did not realize the strategic importance of the Senkakus until the 1970s. Even then, Deng Xiaoping, who was the leader of China after the death of Chairman Mao, bided his time, telling his Japanese counterparts that the hour was too early to decide ownership.
But as the importance of the Senkakus rose among the PRC sensibilities, so, too, did the Chinese efforts to hang historical ornament on a modern-day strategic goal. The Ming documents the Chinese side now cites as authoritative proof of Senkaku ownership conveniently remained buried for some six centuries until, mirabile dictu, they were unearthed just in time to support China’s new territorial claims.
A Must-Read to Understand the Senkaku Issue
Those who do not know of this tendency by Chinese rulers to extend their tyranny into the past as well as the present and future are liable to be led astray. This is why it is important — no, absolutely essential — that anyone concerned about territorial integrity, historical accuracy, or the rule of law buy and read Monika Chansoria’s outstanding new volume, China, Japan, and Senkaku Islands.
Publisher: Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2018
To Learn More: Click here to read more about the book on the publisher’s website.
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Book Review Author: Jason Morgan