Whose Islands Are They Really?

By Jeffrey the Barak

China calls them Diaoyutai, Japan calls them Senkaku Retto and Taiwan calls them Tiaoyutai. These remote, barren, featureless and small islands are the rocks that everyone suddenly wants.

Each country has their reasons for believing they should hoist flag on these islands that were until recently, just someone’s private property.

They used to be Chinese, or more specifically, Taiwanese, except Taiwan and China had not yet become two nations at the time. Then in 1895, Japan claimed them as a war prize and annexed them into the Okinawa prefecture. However it was not until 1900 that the name Senkaku first came into use. After the Second World War, the islands were administered by the United States. But Japan has controlled them since the 1970s. Not that anything ever happened there, besides fishing off their coasts. Some say that China did not notice the Japanese acquisition in the 70s because they were being called Senkaku and the Chinese were not aware that it was the Diaoyutai Islands being taken over.

History leans to the Chinese side of this property dispute. Yes they were Taiwanese, but not in the time period that Taiwan was a separate nation. When Taiwan arose as a separate nation in 1949, the islands were in the hands of the Japanese.

Geography may be the deciding factor.

Politics and old war wounds are one thing, but what about geography? As far as the Earth is concerned, are these little bits of dry land part of Japan, China or Taiwan? One way to have a look is to drain the ocean. Nowadays we have access to very good maps that show continental shelfs, ocean troughs and undersea plate boundaries. When we take away some of the ocean and look at land we call Japan, China and Taiwan, we see where these disputed islands are in relation the each of the three nations.

Unfortunately for Japan, this does not lend much to their argument. Japan stretches Southwest in a chain of islands that include Okinawa and continues all the way to Yanaguni, which is not far from the coastline of Taiwan. All of these islands are on an underwater ridge that extends all the way up to Tokyo. The ridge is there due to a plate boundary. To the South, the Philippine plate and the Philippine Sea are subducting under the Eurasian plate and the East China Sea, and pushing up the ridge that Southern Japan and its islands sit upon.

Separating the lands that are definitely Japanese islands from Taiwan and China is the Okinawa Trough. And lowering the sea level to the top of the trough would show all the Japanese lands on the ridge, and then the disputed islands to the North, across the sea, on the Chinese side.

Of course this would also connect Taiwan to China with a great, flat connecting plain, our present East China Sea, but the Diaoyutai, Senkaku, or Tiaoyutai islands would be hills on the Southeast coast of China. The islands are much closer to Taiwan than to China, but before Japan or America had them, Taiwan (Formosa) was still China.

But it is not that simple. Taiwan or Formosa as it was once called, was ceded to Japan in 1895 after the war between China and Japan. Fifty years later at the end of World War Two, the Republic of China took back Taiwan. But then there was the Chinese Civil War and in 1949 the ROC resettled its government to Taiwan and left the mainland to the new China under Mao’s communists.

So geographically, Japan has little claim to the islands, despite having lands further West, over on their plate boundary ridge. The islands are really, just off Taiwan, closer to Taipei than even Taiwan’s second city of Sanmin. They are about three times further offshore than the Taiwanese island of Penghu to the West. Penghu is really close to the China mainland, and yet clearly part of today’s Taiwan. So geographically it is between China and Taiwan, not Japan.

The islands themselves are not really habitable, and the dispute is about pride, grievances and unsettled disagreements of the past. But if it went to court and the planet’s surface was the judge, Japan would need one heck of a lawyer to get anywhere.

Of course this same geographical argument could turn the British Falkland Islands into the Argentinian Malvinas, except in that case the islands are full of Brits who love being Brits, whereas these rocks in the South China Sea have no-one on them.

Jeffrey the Barak stares at maps and comes up with all kinds of silly ideas about what is where.



1 Comment

  1. I am Japanese, but I think these are not really our islands. Too far away from our land and sea. I think that the best solution would be for Japan to concede them to Taiwan, and then for the Taiwanese in turn to let China have them. That way, everyone is the good friend and we will all be nice neighbours.

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