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Historical Claims? China Wasn’t Interested in Senkakus Before Discovery of Possible Oil Deposits



China’s survey ship conducted activities in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near Okinotorishima, nearly 1,740 kilometers south of Tokyo, for more than a week in July 2020. It was the longest time a Chinese vessel had spent in these waters in at least a decade. 

Beijing, on its part, put forth an argument that Japan’s “unilateral claim has no legal basis.” It is highly disconcerting that China resorted to making this argument. 

RELATED ARTICLE: Chinese Naval Activities Inside Japan’s Okinotorishima EEZ are Increasing Threat to Pacific

For starters, China needs to go beyond the usual, dreary, and oft-repeated argument, which states a particular territory is part of China “since ancient times.” Nearly all of China’s territorial claims have no international legal basis. Rather, they hinge on selective and unsubstantiated versions of China’s historical memory that are unsupported by the archival records, documents, and recorded facts on the ground. 

Historical narratives and re-interpretations and distortions of history are becoming characteristic of China’s revisionist objectives to redraw frontiers and expand its spheres of influence. Its visibly escalating provocations in the East China Sea are becoming intensely trapped in a state of perpetuity involving China’s geo-strategic ambitions over the strategically located Senkaku Gunto (Islands). I chronicled this in my 2018 book titled China, Japan and Senkaku Islands: Conflict in the East China Sea amid an American Shadow based on archival records and research.

Turning Point in Chinese Claims Over Senkakus

It has been well documented in archival records that China paid little attention to the status of the Senkaku Islands until the 1960s. The contest being witnessed today remained relatively dormant until a specific turning point in 1969. 

The potential for future offshore oil development was undoubtedly one of the primary drivers behind China’s claims over the Senkaku Islands that affect nearly 20,750 square nautical miles of marine space and mineral resources of the region. The contemporary history and the future of the Senkakus Islands were apparently rediscovered by China when it learned that huge deposits of oil and hydrocarbons had been found in the waters surrounding the islands in 1969.  

In the background is the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), which was later known as the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). The organization oversaw extensive geophysical surveys of the seabed in the region in 1968 and 1969 through its Committee for Coordination of Joint Prospecting for Mineral Resources in Asian Offshore Areas (CCOP). 

The findings of the surveys suggested the possible existence of the “richest seabed with oil and hydrocarbon deposits” in the waters off the Senkaku Islands. 

The strategic and economic consequences of the 1969 report were the turning point, providing impetus to China’s claims and interests and resulting in today’s contest over the Senkakus. This historical context also helps explain the vital contemporary geopolitical and strategic relevance of the Senkaku Islands.

China, beyond its usual reliance on its “since historical [ancient] times” argument, has failed to provide actual archival evidence to back up its purported claims of Chinese presence in and control or sovereignty over the islands prior to the late 1800s. It is doubtless counting on creating a perception that fits the feature of international law under which appropriation of territory is legally strengthened if the territory is public and not contested during that particular period.

The official incorporation of the Senkaku Islands by Japan would surely have come to the attention of succeeding generations of Chinese leadership,  given that fishermen from Taiwan and China occasionally landed there to escape fiery storms while pursuing fishing activities in the area. Japan had been using the islands for economic purposes, including tax collection, and habitation by Japanese citizens.

Findings of the 1969 U.N. ECAFE

The geophysical survey conducted in the East China Sea and Yellow Sea in October/November 1968 indicated that the continental shelf between Taiwan and Japan could contain one of the most high-volume oil and gas reservoirs in the world, to the extent of being close to the size of the Persian Gulf reservoirs. 

The survey was conducted by the United States Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution with participating geologists and geophysicists from Taiwan, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. During the cruise, more than 12,000 line kilometers of continuous seismic reflection profiles were run with a 30,000-joule sparker and continuous geomagnetic profiles that were created simultaneously.

The sixth session of the CCOP held in Bangkok (May 21-27, 1969) was preceded by the fifth session of its Technical Advisory Group during the same month. Following completion of the final analyses, compilations, and illustrations ashore in the U.S., the results of the survey were made public and published in the second volume of the committee’s technical bulletin.

Reconnaissance and seismic profiling in the Yellow and East China Seas (Project CCOP-1/IZ.3) was conducted in late 1968. The activity found Neogene sediments with a thickness of more than 1,000 meters distributed on the Korean continental shelf over three areas (D-1, D-2, and D-3) totaling about 80,000 square kilometers. They were declared to be potentially containing huge accumulations of oil and natural gas. 

To obtain more definitive data on the extent and limits of favorable areas, and to determine the structure within these sedimentary basins, it was recommended that more detailed seismic explorations be conducted over the specified areas. 

The May 1969 report was reconfirmed later by independent Japanese as well as Chinese research. This strengthened China’s decision to make an abrupt and sudden shift in its post-1969 claims of sovereignty over a huge area of continental shelf and EEZ. This amply conveyed Chinaʼs objective to stake claim over billions of barrels of oil and rich fishing grounds, which additionally were very close to the strategic sea lanes in East Asia.

In this sudden turn of events, China began publicly asserting claims of sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in 1971. The initial reports surrounding the Chinese claims appeared in print in May 1970, followed by the first official claim to the islands by the government of the People’s Republic of China on December 30, 1971. All of China’s assertions of rights followed the report of the U.N. ECAFE.

Actual Historical Involvement with the Senkakus

China’s Xinhua news agency issued a dispatch in reference to the government’s 1970s claims to the Senkakus in 2012, stating: “Diaoyu (Senkaku) and its affiliated islands have been considered part of China since ancient times. Chinese people were the first to discover, name and administer these islands.”

However, the reality is that China had never established a permanent settlement of civilians or military personnel on the islands, nor collected taxes, nor maintained permanent naval forces in adjacent waters. The facts on this are hard to deny, highlighting the substantial weakness of China’s purported claims over the Senkakus. 

China failed to claim sovereignty over the Senkakus until the international exploration and U.N. Commission report in 1969, and more significantly did not challenge the Japanese official incorporation of the islands, until after the 1969 report was published. This will always be considered a tacit acceptance by the People’s Republic of China that the islands were, in fact, uncontested for more than a reasonable period of time before then. Moreover, it reinforces the evidence that Japan did control the islands that were terra nullius to begin with.

Academics and experts in China attempt to justify China’s silence on the above argument by stating that there was an absence of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Tokyo until 1972. The immediate fallout counter-question arising is, why would that prevent Beijing from protesting against Japan’s territorial claims to the islands on the international stage? For that matter, China was known to have lodged protests against Japan on many other issues and occasions before 1972.

Another argument often presented in China revolves around its domestic instability due to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1969), with the excuse that it was these prevailing conditions that took Beijing’s attention away from the islands. The Cultural Revolution happened for a finite time period during the late 1960s. That period apart, there still is no recorded evidence of Chinese claims or protests over the Senkakus — even prior to the Cultural Revolution.

The Allure of Senkaku’s Natural Resource Potential

There is no denying that it was the prospect of availability of large oil deposits that drove China to declare its claims over the Senkakus. China sought access to these resources to meet its ever-growing demand for oil and gas and diversify away from high dependence on supplies from the Middle East. Beijing’s bid on extraction of energy resources in the East China Sea began in the 1970s, and the PRC began claiming Senkaku Islands vocally in various U.N. committees only in 1971.

The discovery of oil and hydrocarbons around the Senkaku Islands has rendered this region a critical link to the existing power arrangements in East Asia. Thus, it is the economics of geo-strategy that is driving Beijing’s self-described sovereignty claims in the name of Chinese national identity.

Author: Dr. Monika Chansoria

Dr. Monika Chansoria 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.