US risks losing neutrality over Diaoyu

By Clifford Kiracofe Source:Global Times Published: 2012-10-22 22:15:03

Illustration: Liu Rui
Illustration: Liu Rui

The US has over two centuries of experience with the East and South China seas, but the passage of time and the Cold War dimmed memories about the Diaoyu Islands. Today, Washington must adopt a strictly impartial position on the longstanding dispute between China and Japan, and should support a peaceful diplomatic process to resolve the issue over time.

Some make a false claim that the US historically considered the Diaoyu Islands part of the Ryukyu Islands, today's Okinawa Prefecture. But the record shows otherwise.

The expedition of US Commodore Matthew Perry famously opened up Japan, and that to this end the US and Japan signed the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854.

It is not remembered that Perry also negotiated a Convention in 1854 with what was then called "Lew Chew" (Liu Chiu). At the time, it was well known that the Diaoyu Islands were not part of the historic Ryukyu kingdom, composed of 36 islands.

The official results of the Perry expedition were presented to the US Congress, and to the world, through the publication of a comprehensive report in three volumes which included maps and naval charts. These maps and charts of the Ryukyu Islands did not include the Diaoyu Islands. Significantly, the convention was written in the Chinese language.

From an Asian perspective, on the one hand, the kingdom was within the traditional East Asian tribute system centered on China. On the other hand, Japanese warlords asserted influence. Perry and the US government were aware of these issues. 

Japan unilaterally changed the status of its relationship with Liu Chiu in the 1870s and then annexed it in 1879. The US Department of State raised concerns with Tokyo about the status of "Lew Chew" and US rights under the 1854 agreement with the kingdom. 

In 1879, General Ulysses S. Grant, a former president of the US, visited China and Japan on his around the world tour. Tensions between China and Japan over the Liu Chiu situation were high and some thought war was possible.

Grant, as a private citizen who was strictly impartial, encouraged both sides to solve the matter peacefully through diplomacy.

In China, General Grant had extensive discussions in a friendly atmosphere with such high officials as Prince Gong and Viceroy Li Hongzhang. The Liu Chiu issue was discussed in detail. 

General Grant's visit and the Liu Chiu crisis were extensively covered in the newspapers of the day in China and around the world.

At that time, some suggested a compromise arrangement where the central group of the Ryukyu Islands would become a neutral kingdom, the northern group would go to Japan, and the southern group would go to China.

Japanese imperialism and the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95 further complicated the situation. Then during World War II, the US liberated the Ryukyu Islands at a cost of 12,000 American lives.  

As the Cold War set in, the Ryukyu Islands were a key strategic consideration for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. For reasons of national security the US chose to retain these islands, particularly Okinawa, in a strategic trusteeship. 

At this time, however, the US government appears to have become unclear about the historical situation in the area south of 29 degrees north latitude. Strong pressures to lean toward the Japanese side to induce Tokyo to join the Western side in the Cold War led to mistakes.

Suddenly, the Korean War (1950-53) sharply exacerbated Cold War tensions and heightened security considerations regarding the Ryukyu Islands and the region.

Under these circumstances, the US assigned the Diaoyu Islands to the Ryukyu Islands for administrative and security purposes, although they could have been assigned to Taiwan, with which the US was friendly. 

This administrative move involving the Diaoyu Islands, based on perceived military necessity, did not signify that the US considered the Diaoyu Islands a historical part of the Ryukyu Islands or that the US took a legal position on outstanding territorial disputes between China and Japan.

In 1971, the US Senate approved the Okinawa Reversion Treaty. The US Senate records indicate that it understood the longstanding historical and legal dispute over the Diaoyu Islands and that it did not take a side on this matter in the passing of the these islands to Japanese administration. There was opposition to reversion in the Senate and in the US. 

Today, at a time of intense controversy over the Diaoyu Islands, Washington includes the Diaoyu Islands within the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the US. For many, such a disruptive tilt toward Tokyo signals that Washington is far from neutral in this dispute.

Washington must take a strictly impartial position so that China and Japan over time may resolve their differences according to international law and in a peaceful manner through diplomacy.

The author is an educator and former senior professional staff member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

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