Ever since Japanese Prime minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese president Xi Jinping have been elected, Xi Jinping has been avoiding a meeting with Abe and that is due to two reasons.
The first one is because of the Yasukuni Shrine issue concerning Japan’s war responsibility. The second reason is due to the Senkaku islands dispute. Moreover, on the 13th of August 2014, Japan said that Tokyo would protest against Russia’s military exercises on the Kuril Islands that are claimed by Japan. In addition, Japan’s renewed claim in 2014 on Liancourt Rocks has been denounced by South Korea. While these territorial disputes have been ongoing, Japan’s bilateral relations with the involved neighbors haven’t been steady. So we ask ourselves, how did these territorial disputes evolve to remain unresolved until today? The Kuril Islands, Senkaku Islands, and the Liancourt Rocks disputes have been controversial in contemporary Japan, not amending the diplomacy between Japan and its neighbors.
First, the Kuril Islands, also known as the Northern Islands are located between Hokkaido and Kamchatka. The dispute has commenced since the Edo period. While it was said that the Ainu were the first inhabitants of the islands, Japan claims sovereignty over the islands. The dispute centers around the three main islands: Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan. Starting with the Treaty of Shimoda which was then amended by the Treaty of St. Petersburg, it provided Japan the full right and title to the entire Kuril Archipelago and in exchange, it gave Russia the Sakhalin Islands. On the 5th of September 1905, after the Russo-Japanese war, Japan reclaimed the southern half of Sakhalin in the treaty of Portsmouth. During WWII, in 1941, Japan, and the Soviet Union agreed on the soviet-Japanese neutrality pact. On February 11th 1945, the Soviet Union renounced the pact and signed the Yalta agreement that made it enter the war against Japan. The US and the UK promised the Soviet Union their return of the Sakhalin and the Kurile islands. After declaring war on Japan on the 8th of August 1945, Russia invaded shimushu (northern part of the kuril) and by the 5th of September it took over all the Kuril Islands. On the 20th of September, all property on the islands was nationalized and the following year, the kuril Archipelago belonged to Russia. Before 1950, 17,000 Japanese inhabitants of Kuril Islands had to leave. In addition, Article 2 (c) of the San Francisco peace treaty renounces Japan’s all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands as well as the sakhalin. However, the treaty doesn’t mention who owns them. The Soviet Union refused to sign the treaty. In 1956, a joint declaration was signed by Japan and Russia to finally end the war. The Soviet Union suggested a peace treaty that allows Japan to obtain Shikotan and Habomai but it was never concluded. Ever since then, there hasn’t been any effort made to finally resolve the issue especially for the inhabitants there.
Second, the Senkaku islands consist of eight uninhabited islands located in the East China Sea, north-east Taiwan, and West Okinawa. In The 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan and the Territorial Disputes in East Asia (2002), Seokwoo Lee states that “If considered to be “islands” under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands could affect 20,750 square nautical miles of marine space, and the vast mineral resources in that area.” In addition, with its future offshore oil development, it is making harder for the tension between Japan, China and Taiwan to amend. After China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese war, under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, China gave away Taiwan and the islands. At the end of World War II, with the 1943 Cairo Declaration and the 1945 Potsdam proclamation, Taiwan was returned to China, however, Japan asked for the ownership of the Senkaku islands to which the Chinese government replied to by leaving them under U.S. administration. On the 25th of December 1953, the Senkaku islands were included and were being administered as a part of Okinawa Prefecture. In the late 1960s, it was discovered that there might be big hydrocarbon deposits in the waters of the islands. The notion of oil made the three countries declare the priorities of their claims. Furthermore, the current issue is yet unresolved, meetings are being avoided due to the uncertainty.
Third, the Liancourt Rocks are composed of two tiny rocky islets. They are occupied by Korea but Japan disputes for their ownership. Between 1904 and 1910, Japan officially included the Liancourt Rocks as part of the Shimane prefecture, it was labeled as Takeshima. Later on, during the second World War, the 1943 Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Proclamation renounce the Rocks from Japan and give them to Korea. Similarly to the other disputes, these rocks weren’t addressed in the San Francisco Treaty. Korea has been developing the area since 1952. Despite the dispute, on the 22nd of June 1965, Japan and Korea signed a Treaty on Basic Relations to normalize diplomatic relations but without any Liancourt Rocks mentioning. In 1996, Japan claimed new exclusive economic zone (EEZ). On the 22nd of January 1999, Korea and Japan signed a fisheries agreement setting quotas in the other’s EEZ by establishing, around the Liancourt Rocks a joint fishing zone.
Finally, we can conclude that despite all the treaties, these territorial disputes don’t seem like they will be fully resolved in anytime soon. And, unfortunately, as long as they remain unsolved, the bilateral relations of Japan and its neighbors will not be at its best. While no efforts are being made to resolve the issue once and for all these islands will remain Terra nullius.