Chinese government officials have recently stated that that China was “strongly dissatisfied” with remarks that U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton made that appeared to take Japan’s side in an ongoing dispute between Japan with China and Taiwan over national sovereignty of a group of islands that Japan refers to as the Senkaku Islands and that China and Taiwan refer to as the Diaoyui Islands.
The Chinese government remarks came in response to comments that Mrs. Clinton made in a recent meeting with Japan’s foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, when she said that the U.S. was committed to help Japan defend the island group against foreign attack under the terms of the U.S. security agreement with Japan.
These comments are coming in response to actions that the Japanese government has taken in regard to the disputed islands that have heightened tensions in the region. As well, it calls into questions what obligations the U.S. has in fulfillment of the U.S. - Japan Security Agreement.
Recent conflict over the islands started on September 7th when a Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat in the territorial waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands, collided with a Chinese fishing trawler that it was pursuing. The Japanese Coast Guard patrol stated that the reason for their pursuit of the trawler was to investigate possible illegal operations. After the collision, the Chinese trawler’s captain and crew were arrested by the Japanese Coast Guard’s patrol ship for interfering with official duties.
In 1997, Japan and China signed a fisheries agreement allowing free passage and fishing rights to both nations in the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands. The agreement was implemented in 2000. There have been both Chinese and Japanese fishermen in these waters since with no problems and no incidents.
Since the 1997 fishing agreement gave fishing boats from both nations free passage in these waters, it was not explained by the Japanese government what legal rights or powers the Japanese Coast Guard had to pursue, detain or arrest the Chinese trawler’s crew in these contested waters. By doing so, the Japanese government granted itself legal territorial rights to an area that was in active dispute between Japan with China and Taiwan.
Japan detained the arrested Chinese trawler captain for more than two weeks, resulting in diplomatic threats from China and the cancellation of official engagements between the two countries.
Japan has also recently pressured the U.S. search engine company Google to take Japan’s side in the dispute over the islands, when in October, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) filed a protest with the company urging them to delete the Chinese name for the disputed islands from their mapping service. The LDP stated in its’ protest, “It is clearly wrong to list the names as if a territorial dispute exists with China in this area. We strongly call you to delete it as soon as possible."
Asked about the LDP's move, the Japanese Foreign Minister, Seiji Maehara said, "The LDP's action was totally upright. If necessary, the Japanese government will also take action together,” stating that his ministry would lodge a protest with Google as well.
The actions of the Japanese government in pressuring Google to recognize only Japan’s claim to sovereignty over these disputed islands calls into question the reason for the Japanese Coast Guard’s arrest of the Chinese fishing trawler that was legally fishing in these waters in accordance with an agreement signed by both countries. It also shows that the Japanese government is actively working to assert it’s claim of national sovereignty over these disputed islands. Japan is embroiling the U.S. in it’s dispute and the question is whether and why the U.S. should support Japan militarily in Japan’s assertive moves to claim sovereignty over islands who’s sovereignty have disputed with other nations.
The roots of the dispute over sovereignty over these islands lie in their history. As a result of the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese war, Japan gained control of the Senkakus from China.
With the passage of the 1953 San Francisco Peace Treaty between the U.S. and Japan, the Diaoyui (Senkaku) Islands passed from Japanese to U.S. trusteeship administrative control, along with neighboring Okinawa.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s , the Japanese government began calling for the reversion of Okinawa back to Japan, claiming that it was historically part of Japan.
On June 17, 1971, the Okinawa Reversion Treaty was signed by the U.S. and Japan, which brought the Diaoyui Islands, along with Okinawa, under Japanese administrative control. Both China and Taiwan contested Japan’s right to control over the Diaoyui (Senkaku) Islands. At the time of the reversion of the islands back to Japanese control, the U.S. stated that it considered any conflicting claims to the islands to be a matter for resolution by the parties involved and not the United States.
The Diaoyui (Senkaku) Islands are small uninhabited islands which have no economic value or significance except possible oil and gas reserves in the territorial waters around the islands. The territorial dispute over the islands was shelved between Japan and China, on Deng Xiaoping’s proposal, with the China-Japan Peace and Amity Treaty in 1978.
The United States has worked to diffuse the situation regarding these and other disputed territorial claims in the region. At an October meeting of defense ministers in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates said “The United States does not take sides in competing territorial claims, such as those in the South China Sea. Competing claims should be settled peacefully without force or coercion.” He also said that territorial disputes and maritime claims were a growing challenge to stability in the region.
While China has made a point of saying that the dispute over the issue of the sovereignty of the islands does not involve the U.S., Japanese government officials have not said, as Chinese government officials have, that the dispute between Japan and China and Taiwan over these islands does not involve the United States.
In addition, this is not the only dispute that Japan has with neighboring countries over the issue of national sovereignty of islands in the region.
Since the end of World War Two, Japan has had an ongoing dispute with Russia over a group of islands located between the two nations. Russia claims the islands as the Southern Kuril Islands while Japan claims them as the Northern Territories. The dispute over these islands has prevented these two nations from signing a formal peace treaty after the end of World War Two.
In this dispute between Japan and Russia, as well as the dispute between Japan, China and Taiwan, the U.S, has urged bilateral talks between Japan and the other countries involved, but there has been an unwillingness by both Japan and the other countries involved to negotiate.
As well, in a recent clash with South Korea, Japan has stepped up claims that it has sovereignty over uninhabited islands located midway between South Korea and Japan. In 2005, Japan created a furor in South Korea when the Japanese ambassador to South Korea publicly claimed that the islands, called Dodko in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese, were legally and historically Japanese. South Korean marine police are stationed on the uninhabited outcrops. These actions by Japanese government officials served to sour the relationship between Japan and South Korea, scuttling diplomatic relations between the nations for a period afterwards.
The sovereignty of these island groups are all in dispute and Japan has been unwilling to meet with these nations to discuss the issue of sovereignty with them diplomatically.
These disputes call into question what responsibilities the U.S. has to Japan under the U.S. – Japan Security Agreement and what Japan considers the U.S. responsibilities to Japan in fulfillment of this agreement. The use of the U.S. –Japan Security Agreement as an agreement that could force the U.S. to back Japanese contested sovereignty claims over these islands is serving to harm U.S. relations with China and Taiwan and possibly other nations in the region. It is also serving to endanger security in the region for all of the nations involved, including the United States.