The territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands has intensified in recent weeks with tit-for-tat landings by activists from Hong Kong and Japan.
Staff Writer Kim Soonhi reviews the historical background of the Senkaku Islands in the following question-and-answer format:
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Question: With the recent controversy over the Senkaku Islands, the first thing people may want to know is just what kind of islands are they?
Answer: Uotsurishima island is the biggest and three other islands are Kubashima, Minami-Kojima and Kita-Kojima. In addition, Taishoto lies more than 100 kilometers from Uotsurishima and there are other reef islets. The total area of the islands is about 5.5 square kilometers. In 1895, the Meiji government of Japan formally incorporated the islands into Okinawa Prefecture as Japanese territory.
Q: Was anyone living on the islands at the time?
A: The Meiji government began looking into the islands from about 10 years in the past and confirmed that the islands were uninhabited and not under the control of any nation, including China's Qing dynasty. The Japanese government's view is that procedures were in line with the appropriate means under international law for acquiring territorial rights.
Q: Have the islands always been uninhabited?
A: No. In 1896, four of the islands, excluding Taishoto, were leased to an individual in the private sector. In 1932, the islands were sold to the relatives of the original renter. At one time, about 250 people lived on the islands and production of dried bonito flakes and other business were conducted there. The islands became uninhabited again from about 1940. The four islands are still owned by individuals in the private sector and only Taishoto is owned by the central government.
Q: Why is China insisting that the islands are its territory?
A: A statement issued on Aug. 24 by the Chinese Foreign Ministry says, "The Chinese were the first to discover, name and use Diaoyudao (the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands)." In that statement, there is an explanation of a reference to "Diaoyuyu" in a document from 1403 as further grounds to back their claims for territorial rights.
Q: Is that so?
A: Furthermore, China also argues that the Senkaku Islands are part of Taiwan. They claim Japan took over the islands during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). Under that argument, since Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration of 1945 and surrendered unconditionally, Taiwan and the accompanying islands, like the Senkaku Islands, were returned to China.
Q: What is the Japanese position?
A: Japan entered into the San Francisco Peace Treaty with 48 nations, including the United States, and after the treaty took effect in 1952, Japan regained its sovereignty. Under that treaty, the Senkaku Islands came under the rule of the United States. When Okinawa was returned to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, those islands were also returned to Japan as part of the Nansei (southwestern) islands. In other words, the treaty did not recognize the Senkaku Islands as part of Taiwan.
Q: What did China do?
A: It did not raise any opposition for a long time. Japan took that indifference as evidence that China did not consider the Senkaku Islands to be part of its own territory. China only began claiming that the Senkaku Islands were its own territory from after the 1970s.
Q: Why did it suddenly begin making that claim?
A: A study in 1968 by experts led to the possibility that oil reserves might be found under the sea near the Senkaku Islands. For that reason, there is a strong view that China only began claiming territorial rights because it was interested in those natural resources.
Q: Did China consider the islands to be Japan's in the past?
A: In a Jan. 8, 1953, issue of the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, there is a mention of the Ryukyu islands being made up of the Senkaku Islands and other islands. However, from the 1970s, the People's Daily began referring to Diaoyudao as islands that belong to Taiwan.
Q: Does that mean territorial disputes began from that time?
A: Although Japan and China normalized relations in 1972, the issue of ownership of the Senkaku Islands was not a major issue at that time. However, in 1978 during a visit to Japan, then Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping indicated the Senkaku issue should be tabled by saying, "Any issue that our generation does not have the wisdom to resolve should be handled by future generations."
Q: Does that mean the issue has gradually become more confrontational since then?
A: That is correct. In the 1990s, there was an increase in attempts by Hong Kong activists to land on the islands. In 2010, when a Chinese trawler collided with two Japan Coast Guard ships in waters near the Senkaku Islands, relations between Japan and China sank to what was described as the lowest level ever. Taiwan has also argued for territorial rights over the Senkaku Islands since 1971 as "the government of the Republic of China."
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