Jiji Press in Japan went big yesterday (日) on an exclusive revolving around historical PRC government documents related to PRC awareness of the territorial dispute over the islands, publishing a number of articles and commentaries in rapid fire succession.

The Japanese government’s position has been that the PRC, at least, only made a claim to the islands after oil was discovered in 1968 and when Japan and the ROC on Taiwan entered into discussions regarding resource sharing in the area in 1970. The PRC has traditionally rejected this claim and has argued that the islands have been the inherent and sacred territory of China since before the “illegal” 1895 incorporation by Japan during the First Sino-Japanese War.

The Japanese evidence for the PRC having been formerly disinterested revolves around a few pieces of evidence. One was Zhou Enlai’s statement to Tanaka Kakuei during normalization talks regarding the issue of there being oil in the islands and thus it having become a problem (see here for a better analysis of these exchanges). Others (bottom) include a 1953 People’s Daily article and a 1958 Chinese world map, which pointed to the “Senkaku Islands,” using the Japanese name, as being part of Okinawa prefecture. The Chinese government has suggested that neither were official representations of the PRC government’s position and thus were insufficient proof that the PRC had at any point considered the islands to be part of Okinawa.

However, Jiji has claimed that they have came into possession of original documentation which proves beyond doubt that the PRC government did at one point after 1949 believe that the islands could have been part of Okinawa prefecture, as opposed to their post-1970 position that has emphasised that the islands were historically part of Taiwan province, to which they also lay claim.

The documents that the Jiji Press holds relate to the PRC’s position vis-a-vis negotiations around the San Fransisco Treaty process, to which the PRC was not in the end invited and would have likely declined to participate in anyway due to the recognition of self-determination for Taiwan. According to Jiji, the “Draft Guidelines Related to Territorial Issues and Claims and the Peace Treaty with Japan,” dated May 1950, represents the internal consensus in the PRC at the time regarding the territories that should be returned back to “China,” and the government’s position on other territorial issues such as Okinawa, Korea and the Kuriles. The documents apparently do not once use the moniker “釣魚島” or Diaoyu-tai, and actually in one case use something similar to the Japanese term for the “Senkaku islands” (in this case the 尖頭諸嶼  or Senkaku-shosho rather than 尖閣諸島 or Senkaku-shoto). The document does suggest that the islands lay at the border between Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands, and that more research may be needed to determine if they are part of Taiwan, particularly the island known in Japanese as Taisho-To (大正島).  It also notes (日) that Okinawa is divided into three parts North-Central-South, the Okinawa, Miyako and Yaeyama-shoto areas respectively, the last which customarily includes the “Senkaku-shosho.”

Analysis

Assuming the documents are real – and the Chinese government has not yet denied that they might be, saying only that they don’t know the details of the Jiji claim – there are a few implications.

For the Japanese, this would seemingly contradict the PRC claim that the PRC has always considered the islands an inherent, integral and sacred part of Chinese territory. To be sure, the document does not however specifically recognize that the islands are Japan’s islands either. This could well be because there were still thoughts about Okinawa also being a territory for potential contestation in the future. This would be contrary to Chiang Kai-shek’s position during the negotiations over the SF Peace Treaty (which was accepted by the ROC when it signed the 1952 treaty with Japan) which essentially acceded to US demands that Okinawa not be considered a part of China (with the implication being that “residual sovereignty” stayed with Japan), and the islands be administered by the US. But since the PRC was not a party to the SF Treaty, such a position on Okinawa is tenable, even if concerning.

It also throws doubt on the claim that the Chinese government (the Communist variant, at least) considered the islands to have been obviously ceded along with Taiwan to Japan during the fog of war around the Qing Empire’s defeat, Japan’s supposed “illegal” incorporation of the islands and the Treaty of Shimonoseki, and suggests that the PRC initially followed the line of previous governments in China.  In any respect it appears that the islands were not a pressing territorial concern. Jiji also speculates that the PRC, while having previously allowed historical documents such as these to be publicly available, restricted access due to worries that such information may jeopardize the more recent Chinese position on the islands.

In reality the documents are not likely to change the PRC’s position for all of the obvious and not so obvious reasons. There are plenty of documents on all sides of the debate that contradict various governments, and their successors, prior positions, including documents all the way back to the Ming dynasty revealing doubts over whether the islands were part of Taiwan or the Ryukyus. However, it is precisely because of the historical vagueries and contradictions that the Japanese, with the advantage of effective control, are confident in going to the ICJ. Such revelations as this might embolden the Japanese to go forward with pressure on China to take the case to the ICJ, as unlikely as it might actually be for the Chinese to respond in this way given the domestic risks of a loss at the ICJ. Interestingly, the Japanese MOFA only this week in the publication of a position paper on the territorial dispute and the recent airspace intrusions -  itself a rare move – posed the question:

Why does China choose to challenge it not based on international law but by coercion? Is this a China that “opposes hegemonism and power politics in all their forms” and that “will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion (from a report to the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party)”? Does China want to see Japan-China relations pass the point of no return?

This almost reads like a public and official challenge to the Chinese to go to the ICJ, as well as a very clear expression of disquiet regarding the last few months of maritime and aerial incursions into the Senkakus. While hawks in the DPJ such as Maehara Seiji and Nagashima Akihisa had already publicly stated that Japan should be willing to go to the ICJ to resolve the case, as did other hawks such as Ishihara Shintaro and Hashimoto Toru, one wonders if this is evidence of a change in position in the MOFA, which has traditionally preferred to avoid taking any position or provoking China in any way, or emblematic of a likely future approach by the Abe administration. If so then we may be in for some interesting diplomacy in 2013 should PM Abe’s initial (and currently underway) outreach to the Chinese fail to resolve diplomatic tensions.

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 50 post(s) on Japan Security Watch