Japan, Taiwan, and the United States

Giving up one means giving up the other

Michael Turton
Jul 17, 2018 · 6 min read
A Map of National Humiliation from 1938, including many areas that no Chinese emperor ever controlled. Such fantasy maps function to repackage expansionism as “recovery from humiliation”. Although they are no longer taught in schools, the current generation of Chinese leaders was taught by people who were given these maps when they were young. Global Security has a good collection of such maps here.

War is coming to Asia, they say. But where? Story after story after story, even a recent major book, are all warning of a coming clash between the US and China, usually over Taiwan. But Taiwan is hardly the only nation threatened by Chinese expansionism and imperialism. One of China’s key targets is Japan, a nation tightly bound to Taiwan by location, history, culture, and shared threat from China.

In the late 1960s the Chinese first began evolving a claim to the Senkaku Islands of Japan. At present the claim to the islands, known in Chinese as Diaoyutai, is core claim of the Chinese government and a key flashpoint between Japan and China. Several years ago, then President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan said in an interview with AP:

President Ma: Well, on the East China Sea, for instance, the Diaoyutai or Senkaku [Islands], they were actually discovered and named by the Chinese more than 600 years ago, and during the process, they were used as navigation aids and that included the sea defense of Ming and Ching dynasties, ironically, against the Japanese. There are many historical records, particularly when the kings of the Ryukyus [acceded to the throne], they actually paid tribute to mainland China, to the Ming and Ching dynasties, for almost 500 years. So during the process, there were dozens of special envoys sent by the Ming and Ching courts to officiate their inauguration, so there were [many] historical records on using those islands.

The Chinese also dream of annexing Okinawa, a claim that occasionally makes it into the international media. In the minds of Chinese expansionists like Ma, the Chinese claim to the Senkakus is bound up with the claim to Okinawa, and in turn, with China’s claim to Taiwan. In that same interview Ma went on to note:

So we know that island very well; it has been visited many times by Taiwanese fishermen. Near the island there are great fishing grounds

This linkage between the Senkakus and Taiwan via fishing is completely false. Historically, Taiwanese fishermen did not begin using the Senkaku fishing grounds until after 1895 when the Japanese introduced motors for fishing boats.

In 2012 Han-yi Shaw, a longtime proponent of Chinese expansion into the Senkakus, wrote a propaganda piece for the NY Times in which he forwarded the historically absurd contention that “China” owned the Senkakus in the Manchu (Qing) period…

Qing period (1644–1911) records substantiate Chinese ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands prior to 1895. Envoy documents indicate that the islands reside inside the “border that separates Chinese and foreign lands.” And according to Taiwan gazetteers, “Diaoyu Island accommodates ten or more large ships” under the jurisdiction of Kavalan, Taiwan.

Note again the link to Taiwan. In Chinese expansionist catechism, the Senkakus were administrated from Taiwan. In reality, that was never the case. The gazeteer writers simply copied each other, and did not visit the areas in question to ascertain the truth.

Moreover, the “envoy documents” that Shaw refers to do not claim that the Ming and Qing owned the Senkakus. They merely show that the envoys passed by them on their way to Okinawa, and that the boatmen informed them, as they were passing them, that their ships were leaving the world known to the Chinese, not the world the Chinese “owned”. The real inconvenient truth is that as Ming officials declared, China stopped at the water’s edge, and the seas belonged to all. The idea that distant islands belonged to specific states is a modern idea.

This map from the Republic of China (Taiwan) national atlas shows how the Senkakus were treated by the ROC prior to alteration of official ROC maps in 1972 after the ROC began claiming the Senkakus. The Senkakus are shown named only in Japanese, as part of Japan, and without notation of any controversy. For more information on how the ROC altered its maps in the early 1970s, see this post.

These linkages between Taiwan, the Senkakus, and Okinawa are widespread in Chinese expansionist literature on Taiwan. A Business Insider review of China’s expansionist claims observes:

The belief that China has a legitimate claim to the Ryukyu Islands has existed among flag-wavers in China — and Taiwan — for years.

These linkages in Chinese minds show that Taiwan, the Senkakus, and Okinawa and hence, the defense of Japan, are bound up with each other.

Recall that the US has a mutual defense treaty with Japan and that US officials have repeatedly observed that the Senkakus fall under it. This means that if the US ever gives up defending Taiwan, as some observers advocate, and permits China to annex the islands, China’s next move will be to start pressuring Japan to give up the Senkakus and Okinawa, and make official and public claims that the Senkakus belong to Taiwan, as articles in the Chinese state media occasionally claim, since Chinese argue they are all one claim. Since Japan will never willingly give up these territories without a fight, such a claim would mean war.

Part of the Okinawa; source: Japan Flight Adventures

People who argue that the US should give up Taiwan are arguing, in effect, that the US should give up Taiwan and then fight for the uninhabited Senkakus on behalf of Japan — but not for the 23 million people of Taiwan — and then again, for Okinawa after that when the Chinese press their claims. Such a war would be fought without Taiwan’s people and armed forces, eager to resist Chinese expansion and allied to Japan and the US, and with Chinese forces based in Taiwan where they have better access to the Pacific Ocean and US supply lines. Such a policy would be strategic madness, never mind the alarming signals selling out Taiwan would send to our allies in Australia, Philippines, and elsewhere.

Remember this, dear reader, the next time you read someone arguing that the US should sell out Taiwan:

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American Citizens for Taiwan | 美臺會

Helping Americans understand the importance of Taiwan to the United States

Michael Turton

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Michael Turton is a longtime expat in Taiwan, who operates the well known blog The View from Taiwan on Taiwan politics, history, and culture.

American Citizens for Taiwan | 美臺會

Helping Americans understand the importance of Taiwan to the United States