By S. M. Hali

As neighbours, China and Japan have a chequered history, mingled with periods of conflict and peace. Following the Second Sino-Japanese War, China was occupied by Japan between 1937 and 1945. The war was a consequence of decades-long Japanese imperialist policy aiming to dominate China politically and militarily and to secure its vast raw material reserves and other economic resources. Before 1937, China and Japan fought in small, localized engagements. In 1931, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria by its Kwantung Army followed by the Mukden Incident and other skirmishes including the Marco Polo Bridge Incident led to total war in 1937.  In its wake, Japanese occupation of China left a number of irritants in Sino-Japanese relations. The latest standoff is the issue of Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, whose ownership is claimed by both countries.

Perceiving the issue impartially, one comes across recorded legal documents indicating Chinese possession since ancient times. The islands were discovered, laid claim by the Chinese and its territorial waters have been exploited by Chinese fishermen since primeval era. Records of these islands date back to as early as the 15th century. They were referred as Diaoyu in books such as Voyage with a Tail WindShùnf?ng Xi?ngsòng (1403) and Record of the Imperial Envoy's Visit to Ry?ky?; Sh? Liúqiú Lù (1534). Adopted by the Chinese Imperial Map of the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese name for the island group Diaoyu meaning fishing, the documented accounts show that the Diaoyu Islands were put under the jurisdiction of Chinese Navy as affiliated islands of Taiwan since the Ming Dynasty. 

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Japan on the other hand, refers to them as Senkaku Islands, which comprise five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks. These minor features in the East China Sea are located approximately 120 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan, 200 nautical miles east of the Chinese mainland and 200 nautical miles southwest of the Japanese island of Okinawa.

Japan gained possession of the Diaoyu Islands in 1895, when facing imminent defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, China’s Qing government was forced to sign the unequal Treaty of Shimonoseki and cede to Japan "the island of Formosa (Taiwan), together with all islands appertaining or belonging to the island of Formosa". At the end of the Second World War, following Japan’s defeat, the US laid claim to all Japanese territory. However, in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration (which Japan accepted as part of the San Francisco Peace Treaty) Japan was forced to relinquish control of all islands except for the islands of Honsh?, Hokkaid?, Ky?sh? and Shikoku, which comprise modern Japan. Thus China regained its ownership of the Diaoyu Islands. Japan contested China’s ownership but remained inactive till 1968, when United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) identified potential undersea oil and gas reserves near the islands, prompting Japan to lay stake over the Diaoyu Islands. In 1971, Japan and the United States signed the Okinawa Reversion Agreement, which arbitrarily included the Diaoyu Islands in the territories and territorial waters to be reversed to Japan. The Chinese government has, from the very beginning, firmly opposed and never acknowledged such backroom deals between Japan and the United States concerning Chinese territories.

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During the negotiations on the normalization of China-Japan relations in 1972 and on the signing of the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978, the then leaders of the two countries, acting in the larger interest of Sino-Japanese relations, reached important understanding and common ground on "leaving the issue of the Diaoyu Island to be resolved later". This opened the door to normalization of China-Japan relations and was followed by tremendous progress in the bilateral ties and stability and tranquility in East Asia in the following 40 years. 

Since the advent of 2012, Japan has stirred up the issue and things came to a head on 18 August, when a flotilla of four boats carrying about 150 Japanese activists organized by right-wing group Ganbare Nippon arrived at the islands under the plea of commemorating Japanese World War II deaths in the area. Despite being denied permission to land, several of the activists swam to the islands, making an unauthorized landing on Uotsuri, where they raised Japanese flags. Japan’s annexation of the Diaoyu Island along with the affiliated Nan Xiaodao and Bei Xiaodao through its September 2012 illegal purchase and subsequent nationalization of the islands, on close scrutiny, appears to be unlawful and contrary to historical facts. The standoff however, can still be resolved peacefully through negotiations.