The Senkaku Islands and the United States


The Senkaku Islands and the United States

Eisuke Suzuki

The Senkaku Islands, the sovereignty of which is disputed by China and Taiwan, consist of five small islands: Uotsuri-shima, Kita-kojima, Minami-kojima, Kuba-shima, and Taisho-toh; and three rocky outcroppings. Last year the Japanese government purchased the first three islands from a private Japanese owner. The remaining two islands have rarely been mentioned conveniently either by Japan or the United States.

The United States government is less than ingenuous about the consistent historical position it had taken up to 1971. It now resorts to such an ambiguous position pretending that the problem is for the disputing parties to resolve peacefully as if the United States is an innocent by-stander in this dispute. Worse, Japan plays numb about the United States “betrayal” of Japan by transferring to Japan the Senkaku Islands as part of Okinawa under the Okinawa Reversion Treaty of 1971 only to question the validity of Japan's sovereignty of the islands publicly.

The United States had been the administrator of the Ryukyu Islands including the Senkaku Islands in accordance with Article 3 of the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951. Throughout the period from Japan’s surrender in 1945 through the Pease Treaty to the reversion of Okinawa to Japan in 1972, the United States recognized that the Senkaku Islands were part of Okinawa which was placed under the U.S. military administration. Both Kuba-shima and Taisho-toh were used by the U.S. military as firing ranges and target sites for bombing practice. Kuba-shima is owned by a Japanese individual. Taisho-toh is owned by the Japanese government. Both islands are still under the U.S. military administration, to which no access by Japanese is allowed under the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement of 1960. There is no question that the United States recognized that the Senkaku Islands had been part of Okinawa.     

   Why then did the United States change its position in 1971? It coincided with U.S.-China rapprochement negotiations in 1971. I suspect the U.S. negotiators did not want to displease the Beijing government which started claiming the islands for the first time since the U.N. indicated the probable presence of substantial energy deposits in the area around the Senkaku Islands. The current on-going dispute over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands was largely “encouraged,” unwittingly or otherwise, by the United States’ position change from its historical position of affirming the sovereignty of Japan over the Senkaku Islands to the strictly neutral position that the Okinawa reversion treaty did not prejudice anyone's claims to the disputed islands.    

   Any question about the status of the Senkaku Islands must be answered in the context of Article 3 of the Peace Treaty, which placed “Nansei Shoto, south of 29North latitude (including the Ryukyu and the Daito Islands)”under the United States’ trust as “sole administrating authority.” It is obvious that the area includes the Ryukyu Islands, which in turn include the Senkaku Islands. That has been the consistent position of the U.S. government from Dean Acheson through John Foster Dulles to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.    

   In his excellent article, “The U.S. Role in the Sino-Japanese Dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands, 1945-1971” in The China Quarterly (Mar., 2000), Professor Jean-Marc F. Blanchard refers to “the official neutrality of the American government” as “perplexing” Perplexing is too soft a word to characterize the reversal of U.S. policy. It would be more appropriate to use the term “irresponsible.” The United States recognized that Japan had “residual sovereignty” in the Ryukyu Islands including the Senkaku Islands. By “residual sovereignty” it means “the United States will not transfer its sovereign powers over the Ryukyu Islands to any nation other than Japan.” The sole legal basis for United States rights in the Ryukyu Islands was an act of entrustment from Japan as a sovereign. That is the consequential meaning of Japan’s “residual sovereignty”.             

   Before the Nixon administration’s negotiations for rapprochement with Beijing in 1971, the U.S. government’s position was consistent as explicitly recognized by President Kennedy’s statement of March 19, 1962 in connection with the issuance of an Executive Order granting greater autonomy to the local government in the Ryukyus:

    “I recognize the Ryukyus to be a part of the Japanese homeland and look forward to the day when the security interests of the Free World will permit their restoration to full Japanese sovereignty.”       

Therefore, it is more perplexing why the Japanese government does not make any protest against the U.S. government’s irresponsible position of strict neutrality. Some influential “Japan handlers” openly warn that the U.S. obligation under Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty would dissipate if the Senkaku Islands become no longer “territories under the administration of Japan.” It seems the United States would seek to perpetuate the present uncertain security situations by its “hands-off” policy, which has in turn encouraged China to intrude into Japan’s territorial waters and air space, thus subjecting Japan to constant Chinese threats. The current situation of the Senkaku Islands dispute reminds us of the Falklands War of 1982, in which The U.S. government ostentatiously refused to take sides and initially tilted toward Argentine. The Japanese government should demand the United States confirm its own historical position. Alas, we do not have a Margaret Thatcher! ###