In mid-September, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said that the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) originally belonged to China’s Qing Dynasty and were ceded to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki. This meant that they should have been given back to the Republic of China (ROC) at the end of World War II. In contrast, former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) says that Japan should have sovereignty over the Diaoyutais.
For serving and former presidents to have such starkly different opinions about their country’s national territory is not just a first for Taiwan, but also a rarity in world history. So, who is right?
Without records, there can be no history. There are two kinds of historical record — primary and secondary sources. There are dozens of historical documents that provide secondary sources about the Diaoyutais, the most well-known among them being The Book of Sui (隋書), written by Wei Zheng (魏徵) and others during the Tang Dynasty, and the New Book of Tang (新唐書) composed by Ouyang Xiu (歐陽修) and others during the Song Dynasty.
These works tell us that the Diaoyutai Islands were discovered in the fifth century AD by people from Ryukyu, which is the ancient name for modern-day Okinawa.
At that time, the Diaoyutai Islands were notable merely as a navigation mark for ships sailing between Ryukyu and China. They were tiny islands that neither Ryukyu nor China wished to possess.
For about 1,000 years from the fifth to 15th centuries, although people knew of the existence of the Diaoyutais, they did not give the islands a name.
The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library has in its collection a guidebook written in the 15th century that describes more than 10 historical sea routes in East Asia. This book is the earliest primary source concerning the Diaoyutais, which it calls the Diaoyu Islands (釣魚嶼).
At almost the same time, the Kingdom of Ryukyu started paying tribute to China’s Ming Dynasty, which sent envoys to Ryukyu and conferred titles on Ryukyuan officials. This is recorded in more than 30 extant works dating to the end of the Qing Dynasty, most of which mention the Diaoyutais.
There are dozens of other documents that include records about the Diaoyutais, including descriptions of shipping routes as well as collected works, notes, gazetteers and other documents.
Among more than 60 Chinese documents from the Ming and Qing dynasties that mention the Diaoyutais, aside from one which is an inaccurate record, none record the Diaoyutais as belonging to either China or Ryukyu.
Toward the end of the 19th century, international law as practiced in Western countries spread to East Asia, and the first territory to which the norms of international law were applied was the formerly unwanted Diaoyutai archipelago.
The Japanese government found that the Diaoyutai Islands were terra nullius, or unclaimed territory, which met the conditions laid out in international law under which a state could acquire sovereignty over terra nullius by being the first to occupy it.
In 1885, Japan officially declared its occupation of the islands, and in 1890 it incorporated them into its sovereign territory, placing them under the jurisdiction of Okinawa Prefecture. On Jan. 14, 1895, Okinawa Prefecture installed national emblem markers on the Diaoyutais with the central government’s approval.
This sequence of actions was in accordance with the procedure for acquiring territory by means of first occupation as stipulated in international law. From that time on, the Diaoyutais were no longer terra nullius, becoming instead part of the Japanese Prefecture of Okinawa.