Fri, Sep 21, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Historical sovereignty won’t wash

By Lin Cho-shui 林濁水

From a short-term perspective, the immediate cause for the increasingly intense conflict over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), the Liancourt Rocks — known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan — and the disputed islands in the South China Sea is the populist and nationalist mobilization made by the governments of South Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines ahead of elections or, in China’s case, a leadership transfer.

While politicians have encouraged this mobilization, they have also been careful to not let it get out of hand. This is why Japan’s change of ambassadors in China and South Korea, Taiwan’s recall of its representative to Japan after the Japanese government announced that it would buy three of the Diaoyutai Islands, and China’s dispatching of two ocean surveillance ships to the area probably marks the climax of the conflict which is now likely to gradually wind down.

The reason these conflicts have reached their current fever pitch is the long history and current strategic situation in East Asia. However, this does not mean that the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) view that China’s historical sovereignty over the Diaoyutais reach back to the Han Dynasty is correct.

The CCP and the KMT love to talk about historical sovereignty, for example by claiming that Taiwan has been a part of China since ancient times. Chinese historical expert Ge Jianxiong (葛劍雄), a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, criticizes these claims in one of his works: Unification and Division: The Enlightenment of Chinese History, saying that they do not hold water. Ge adds that when Sun Quan (孫權) — founder and emperor of Eastern Wu, one of the three kingdoms — sent soldiers to Taiwan, it was a stupid attempt to take captives and plunder that could not be used as evidence of sovereignty. The Ming and Qing dynasties implemented a ban on maritime trade and activities for several hundred years, in effect turning China into a landlocked country. This makes it more than a bit strange to now suddenly hear of China’s historical maritime sovereignty claims. The Chinese concept of maritime rights was a very recent invention. In 1935, the Chinese government stated that China’s “territorial waters extend for three nautical miles [5.5km].”

The crucial event that brought the Diaoyutai Islands and Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) into the realm of modern sovereignty disputes was the invasion by the Japanese imperialist state. The first time Itu Aba came under the organized jurisdiction of a government was when it was included in Kaohsiung Prefecture during the Japanese colonization of Taiwan. After World War II, Taiwan continued its effective occupation of the island, including it in the jurisdiction of Kaohsiung City. The Diaoyutais were only integrated into the fishing grounds of Taiwanese fishermen with the introduction of modern engine-driven fishing boats. The basis for these two claims thus have nothing to do with Chinese history.

Modern international law stipulates that territorial water claims can be based on practical occupation, prescription, being part of a continental shelf and inclusion in economic waters. “Historic sovereignty” is conspicuous by its absence from this list of legitimate claims. The Diaoyutais sit right on the continental shelf that extends from Datun Mountain.

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