In April 2021, the Boston Global Forum held an online conference, where Harvard scholars gathered to discuss the Senkaku Islands. I was surprised to find that the fake “news” of a tacit agreement on the Senkaku Islands was still circulating in their world.
Grasping the Strategic and Historical Context
The Senkaku Islands issue is above all a strategic one. If the strategic and historical context of the issue is missed, the essence of the problem will be misunderstood.
The Senkaku Islands suddenly began receiving attention in 1969 after a United Nations report found that there was a possibility of oil deposits near the islands.
Prior to the U.N. report, no foreign government of any country had paid any attention to the islands. Under the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, the Senkaku Islands were acknowledged as part of Okinawa and thereafter placed under the military administration of the United States Army. Neither China nor Taiwan had any complaints with the handling of the Senkakus.
Originally, the so-called dispute over the islands was sparked by Chiang Kai-shek. Panicked over the normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China in 1972, the elderly Chiang Kai-shek was said to have seriously regretted not arguing for the transfer of Okinawa Prefecture to China at the time of the Cairo Conference (1943) among the American, British, and Chinese leaders during the war. Having missed this chance, it seemed he wished he could carve off the Senkaku Islands and their oil as a consolation prize for Taiwan. It was a gamble on an afterthought.
The clash between Mao Zedong and Leonid Brezhnev also came to a head in 1969, as China and the Soviet Union fought a large-scale battle at Damansky Island on the Ussuri River. Defeated, Mao feared an invasion of Beijing by the powerful Soviet Union, which had six divisions stationed in Mongolia facing China, as well as Soviet tactical nuclear weapons.
In addition, Mao ordered the Red Guards to suppress the domestic rebellion following the failed policies of his Great Leap Forward, which impoverished the country and caused the death by starvation of two million people. This next step led to the second great tragedy, the Cultural Revolution.
China’s Pretexts and Misunderstandings
With his back against the wall, Mao sought to use the normalization of diplomatic relations with both the U.S. and Japan as a way out. His aim was to obtain American and Japanese capital and technology, as well as stir up confrontation between the two countries and the Soviet Union, distracting the focus of the Soviet Union from China to the U.S. and Japan.
At the meeting in 1972 between Zhou Enlai and Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, Zhou ranted loudly about the Soviet Union, saying that he wanted to reestablish diplomatic relations with Japan right away, and speaking candidly about the Senkaku Islands. Zhou said: “I don’t want to discuss it right now. It has only become a problem because of the oil. Taiwan and the U.S. would not be making an issue of it if there was no oil.”
In May 1972, the Senkaku Islands were returned to Japan as part of the return of all of Okinawa Prefecture as the U.S. ended its military administration. China made no complaints, and diplomatic relations between Japan and China were restored in September the same year.
Origins of the Fake ‘Tacit Agreement’
When Deng Xiaoping visited Japan in October 1978 for the final negotiations of the Japan-China Treaty of Peace and Friendship, at the press conference following a meeting with Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, he suddenly ー and one-sidedly ー announced that they had reached a tacit agreement on deferring the issue of the Senkaku Islands to the future generations. Yet, during the meeting there had been no discussion or exchange on the Senkakus. Deng had muttered to himself that there was “no need to bring up the issue of what you call the Senkaku Islands today,” but Prime Minister Fukuda did not even raise an eyebrow. Nor did Japan acknowledge it.
The Japanese government’s stance has been consistent. There is no territorial dispute over the Senkakus. Any claims to the islands by other countries can only be described as pretexts for securing oil.
A frustrated Deng later repeatedly violated Japan’s territorial waters by sending more than 100 fishing vessels that might have been the Maritime Militia of the People’s Armed Forces (PAFMM), into the waters around the islands. Deng was probably convinced that with his skillful diplomacy and coercion, he had successfully created a claim for China over the Senkaku Islands by his unilateral statement, but Japan has never acknowledged the claim.
Against a Hissing China
Since then, Japan has vowed to protect the peace of the East China Sea and naively began working on a policy of shared resource management with China in relation to fishing and oil development. Japan’s hopes were betrayed, however, as an increasingly powerful China turned to unilateral expansion of its maritime claims with coercion at the beginning of the 21st century.
In 2006, China shocked the world by submitting a document to the United Nations in which it made the preposterous claim that the entire South China Sea, an area larger than the Mediterranean Sea, was under the jurisdiction of the Beijing government.
It also alarmed neighboring countries with the rapid construction of a 3,000-meter airport for military aircraft in the South China Sea. Moving forward with an A2D2 (Anti Access-Area Denial) strategy, it has attempted to secure control over the Bohai Sea, Yellow Sea, and the East and South China Sea as strategic depths to prevent the U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force from approaching the western part of the first island chain, which stretches from Okinawa and Taiwan to Luzon in the Philippines.
China set its sights on U.S. allies, including Japan and the Philippines, from the summer of 2012. It literally robbed the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines. Although the Philippines won its lawsuit in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, China has ignored the ruling, calling it “nothing but wastepaper.”
China also took advantage of Japan’s exhaustion in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, as well as the damage to Japan-U.S. relations suffered under the administration of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Chinese government vessels began barging into the waters around the Senkaku Islands, infringing Japan’s sovereignty on a daily basis.
The Japan Coast Guard is standing its ground, while the U.S. has declared that the Senkakus are covered by Article 5 of the Japan-U.S Security Treaty. Today the Senkaku issue is no longer one of legal debate, but one of force.
- In Our Region: A Taiwan Contingency is a Japan Contingency
- Watching Over the Senkakus: Videos to be Posted by National Security Group
- U.S. Naval Expert Warns: China Is Coming for the Senkaku Islands
- Suga-Biden Talks: U.S.-Japan Ties Reaffirmed, including Senkaku Commitment
(Find access to the Seiron report in the Sankei Shimbun in Japanese at this link.)
Author: Nobukatsu Kanehara, Former Assistant Chief Cabinet Secretary, Visiting Professor, Doshisha University