What does the Senkanku Islands problem have to do with Mongolia?

By Nobuo Tokumatsu, Visiting
Professor, Okinawa Study Center

The dispute over the Senkaku Islands (often referred to as “the Senkaku Islands problem”) derives from territorial claims on the Senkaku Islands that China and Taiwan have been making for the last 40 years.
The situation has not changed during that time, and although the islands continue to be under Japanese control, the government is not taking effective measures against the frequently occurring intrusions into Japanese territorial waters on part of Chinese and Taiwanese vessels. Consequently, the resources of the Senkaku Islands and the continental shelf of the East China Sea cannot be developed and the fishing industry is hampered.

Since the Senkaku Islands are administratively part of Ishigaki City, my home town, I will in this paper consider the problem accordingly from the point of view of Ishigaki Island residents. However, this problem does not only concern China and Japan but has implications for the question of how the security of eastern Asia can be guaranteed. It is also worth considering what relevance it may have for Mongolia, with which China shares much of its long northern border.
Let me give you some background information on the dispute over the Senkaku Islands before returning to the relations between China and Mongolia and considering them against the backdrop of that dispute.
The Senkaku Islands (referred to by China as the Diaoyutai Islands) are a group of small, currently uninhabited, islands located in the southern part of the East China Sea. The largest and westernmost island of that group lies about 190km northeast of Taiwan and 170km north-northwest of Ishigaki, the southernmost city in Okinawa and Japan.
These islands were known and used as navigational markers since before the 16th century and have been uninhabited and unclaimed (terranullius) during most of their known history. However, Japan began to officially survey them in 1885, and in January 14, 1895 declared them officially part of Japan.
From 1896 until 1941 the islands were inhabited and used as a base for fishing operations as well as for agriculture and horticulture, the collection of bird feathers and eggs, and the mining of coral lime stone. After the end of WWII in 1945 the US retained control of Okinawa until 1972 and during that time used two of the islands in the Senkaku Group for military practise. In 1972, the US returned Okinawa, and with it the Senkaku Islands, to Japan.
In 1968, a report form the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (UNECAFE) suggested that “a high probability exists that the continental shelf between Taiwan and Japan may be one of the most prolific oil reservoirs in the world”, and since 1970 both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan (ROC) have been making claims to the effect that Senkaku Islands were ancient territory of China and belonged to Taiwan.
However, there is no evidence of any surveys, administrative activities, inhabitation, or economic activities on these islands prior to their exploration on part of Japan, and the earliest known formal act declaring sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands is the January 14, 1895, cabinet decision by which they were formally incorporated into the territory of Japan. Japan had ascertained that nobody else claimed sovereignty over these islands.
There is also no evidence, neither in documents from Taiwan nor from China, that the Senkaku Islands have ever been administered by Taiwan or that they have been part of Taiwan–the islands were no-man’s land between Ryukyu and China when Japan incorporated them in early 1885. They were subsequently not mentioned in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, and their occupation and economic use on part of Japanese citizens was never raised as an issue by China.
In addition, China never paid attention to the American occupation of the islands after 1945, and although neither the Republic of China in Taiwan nor the People’s Republic of China were invited to the negotiations leading up to the San Francisco Treaty (1951), both countries would have been in a position to address the issue after the end of the civil war in China (1950).
Finally, Taiwan did not mention the islands during the negotiation of the Treaty of Taipei (1952). That was the time when negotiators would have been equipped with the most detailed information related to Taiwan’s territory, and the omission of those islands from the negotiations indicates that Taiwan was, at that time, not disputing their inclusion in the territory of Okinawa, which at the time was administered by the US.
However, it appears that China suddenly developed an appetite for the islands shortly after the UNECAFE report had appeared.
Now, for most people in Mongolia, the dispute over a few small islands in the East China Sea is likely nothing more than a matter between China and Japan that one need not think much about. But its relevance to Mongolia can easily be made transparent. Rather than relying on my own views in this matter, I would like to refer you to something that (the former?) IIEB chairman, ambassador Doljintseren, wrote in his memoirs.
Doljintseren, who is well-versed in US international politics and is assumed to have had some influence on US strategy as well, explains how Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington’ raised this issue in 1996 in his essay “The Clash of Civilizations” (memoirs, pp 198-200). Huntington starts from Chinese insider information to describe the plausible scenario of China asserting its control over Mongolia with the consequence of war breaking out between China and Russia.
Now this was written 15 years ago. But I think that Robert D. Kaplan, in an article entitled “The Geography of Chinese Power” (published in “Foreign Affairs” in May of this year) offers a suitable contemporary analysis. Kaplan addresses the question of China’s relationship with Mongolia and under the subheading “Creeping Control” we find his suggestion that China “is poised to conquer Mongolia again, after a fashion”. Kaplan’s view will probably be shared in well- informed circles in Mongolia, as well.
I don’t know whether the current (DPJ-led) Japanese government considered Kaplan’s explanation at all when it was faced with the recent incident near the Senkaku Islands (a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese Coast Guard vessels). They can probably neither imagine the insight of English geographer and specialist in geo-politics, H. Mackinder, whom Kaplan introduces at the beginning of his article or the foresight of N. Spykman, who has in many ways been influenced by Mackinder. But this problem that is close to home for me, and I feel compelled to draw attention to it.
Returning to the main issue, the ambassador, in his memoirs, clearly rejects the possibility that China would act on its desire, along the lines of Huntington’s prediction. The reason for that would be that the Chinese and the Mongolians have a different history and are ethnically different. However, it is my view that, if we consider China’s approach to territorial claims that it makes regarding the Senkaku Islands, Huntington’s scenario concerning China and Mongolia , and Kaplan’s recent analysis of the situation, and if we put things together, such a scenario would seem much more plausible.
In other words, China in the 21st century is giving us reasons for concern.


Lecture at Institute of International Economic and Business (IIEB)
January 25th, 2011
Tokumatsu, Nobuo Former Professor of Tokoha Gakuen University
Visiting Professor of IIEB Visiting Professor of The Open University of Japan
Okinawa Study Center
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