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U.S. Approach to Diaoyu Islands Issue: Policy, Motivation and Prospect

CIIS Time:12 15, 2017 Writer:Cao Qun Editor:Wang Jiapei


Abstract: For the sake of balancing the interest demands of Japan and the Taiwan authorities, also driving a wedge between China and Japan, the Nixon administration, which had to deal with the pressure from the Baodiao movement in numerous American cities, finally adopted the “neutral” position on the sovereignty dispute over the Diaoyu Islands in the process of U.S.-Japan Okinawa Reversion negotiations. After “return of administrative rights over those islands to Japan”, the Nixon administration had entrenched the application of Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty to the Diaoyu Islands, but it was striving to keep low key inpolicy statement, and in general, the successive U.S. administrations have followed the suit. From the start of 21st century, in order to prevent China’s rapid rise from challenging the dominant role of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific, the American senior officials have gradually made more clear and high-profile position on the application of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty to the islands, which shows a close connection between U.S. policy on the Diaoyu Islands and its Asia policy. It is unlikely that there will be any significant change in the America’s current position regarding the Diaoyu Islands issue until some fundamental changes occur in the China-U.S.-Japan Trilateral Relations and the balance of power among them.



The Diaoyu Islands issue, as an existing aeipathia for Sino-Japanese relations, hasdirectly caused serious confrontation between the two countriessince its paroxysm in recent years. The US has played a disgraceful role in the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands, which would be easier to understand, if several problems are well studied, such as how the U.S. government views the trusteeship issue regarding the Ryukyu Islands and the Japanese “residual sovereignty” over them; what was the real understanding of the U.S. government at that time with regard to the sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands and the reason for its position adjustment during “Okinawa Reversion”; what is America’s basic position on the application of Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty to the Diaoyu Islands and its changes in manner of announcement. The above mentioned issues are of important and realistic significance in precisely understanding the U.S. policy on the Diaoyu Islands and judging its orientation and prospects.


I. The U.S. Cognition of Sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands


While discussing the 1951 Treaty of Peace with Japan at the Conference in San Francisco,[1] the U.S. and the Soviet Union had different views on disposition of the Ryukyus which were considered by the former for optional trusteeship, whereas in opinion of the latter should not be separated from Japan’s sovereignty.[2] Under pressure from the Soviet Union, the U.S. delegate had been forced to publicly speak out at the San Francisco conference (and reaffirmed several times after the conference) a commitment permitting Japan to retain the residual sovereignty over the Ryukyus. The Japanese side has always emphasized that the U.S. commitment of Japan’s residual sovereignty needs to be analyzed in connection with the U.S. Civil Administration of the Ryukyus Proclamation 27 (USCAR 27, issued in 1953) which mistakenly included the Diaoyu Islands. According to this mistaken logic of the Japanese side, the U.S. had taken the “Senkakus” (the Diaoyu Islands) as Japanese inherent territory while governing the Ryukyus.

From 1950s to date, there has been widely accepted definition or understanding with regard to “residual sovereignty” among international law scholars. The Oppenheim’s International Law (8th and 9th edition, published in 1955 and 1992) has taken “residuary sovereignty” as a “may-be-described” expression of “sovereignty” in considering the question of sovereignty over trust territories.[3]At the Conference in San Francisco,the U.S. delegate John Dulles had not publicly given any legal interpretation regarding “residual sovereignty”, but there are some declassified documents that could be used as evidences for elaborating what the U.S. government’s understanding was at that time. In a secret memorandum regarding Ryukyus on 27 June 1951 prepared for John F. Dulles’ meeting with Defense Secretary Gen. Marshall, Mr. Dulles doubted whether Japan’s renunciation of sovereignty over the Ryukyus was in line with the American interests, he pointed out: “The present formula, whereby Japan agrees that, pending affirmative United Nations action on a United States proposal for trusteeship, ‘the United States will have the right to exercise all and any powers of administration, legislation and jurisdiction over the territory and inhabitants of these islands, including their territorial waters.’ Fully complies with the provision of the September 7, 1950 Joint Memorandum that the treaty should ‘secure to the United States exclusive strategic control’. It is fully effective, at least so long as Japan is sovereign. Exclusive strategic control is entirely compatible with residual sovereignty elsewhere, provided the sovereign grants it.”[4] The British delegate Mr. Kenneth Younger’s statement at the Conference in San Francisco indicated that the U.K. understanding of “residual sovereignty” was the same with the U.S. then, he remarked: “As regards the Ryukyu and Bonin Islands, the treaty does not remove these from Japanese sovereignty; it provides for a continuance of United States administration over the Ryukyu Islands south of 29 north latitude; that is to say that those islands nearest to Japan itself are to remain not only under Japanese sovereignty, but under Japanese administration as well.”[5] In a long period since U.S. occupation of Okinawa, the retained Japanese “residual sovereignty” recognized by the U.S. had been geographically applied to the Diaoyu Islands, although this U.S. cognition of Sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands is definitely wrong.


II. The Establishment of U.S. Policy on the Diaoyu Islands

during “Okinawa Reversion”

Since 1970s, the U.S has been insisting on a so called “neutral” position toward sovereignty dispute over the Diaoyu Islands, which was publicized at the “Okinawa Reversion Treaty” Hearings before the U.S. Congress Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in October 1971 (the U.S. formally changed its position on indirectly recognizing Japanese “residual sovereignty” over the Diaoyu Islands), and was summarized in the Report to the Senate on November 2, 1971 as follows: “In an agreed Minute to Article I, the parties specify the geographical coordinates defining the territory covered by the Treaty. These coordinates make it clear that the Senkaku (Tiao Yu Tai) Islands are included as part of the territory administered. In addition, two of the military facilities listed as being retained by the United States are in the Senkakus. The Republic of China, the People’s Republic of China and Japan claim sovereignty over these islands. The Department of State has taken the position that the sole source of rights of the United States in this regard derives from the Peace Treaty under which the United States merely received rights of administration, not sovereignty. Thus, the United States action in transferring its rights of administration to Japan does not constitute a transfer of underlying sovereignty (which the United States does not have), nor can it affect the underlying claims of any of the disputants. The Committee reaffirms that the provisions of the Agreement do not affect any claims of sovereignty with respect to the Senkaku or Tiao Yu Tai Islands by any state.”[6]

As mentioned above, the U.S. neutral position publicized in October 1971 has a big move for the Diaoyu Islands, it changed from the past position of being the object of Japanese residual sovereignty to a new stance of taking no position on which claimant possessed the islands, and only emphasized the return of administrative control over the islands to Japan, which made the Japanese side very unhappy. Why did the U.S. government choose this kind of policy? The reason may lie in the following three perspectives:

A.The U.S. did scruple about the demands of Taiwan authorities because of its diplomatic efforts and the remaining strategic value of Taiwan Island. Richard C. Bush, former Chairman of the Board of the American Institute in Taiwan, had pointed out the significant impact of lobbying by Taiwan authorities towards the U.S. policy-makers in regard to the Diaoyu Islands, stating that—“Without that pressure from Taipei, Japan would likely possess sovereignty today.”[7]During “Okinawa Reversion” negotiations, the security alliance between the U.S. and Taiwan authorities was still existing. Although the Taiwan authorities’ role in U.S. Asia policy had become less important to some extent, its strategic value in Asia-Pacific island chains remained for the benefit of U.S. military presence. Comparing that a lot of Chinese-American scholars supporting China’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands were invited to present their testimonies at the Hearings before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in October 1971, there was none of Japanese-American scholars invited to testify, and there was even coincidently no voice supporting the Japanese claim at the Hearings. This totally one-sided “coincidence” appeared to be manipulated by someone on purpose.

B.The Nixon administration might have made a more friendly gesture on the Diaoyu Islands issue in order to improve relations with China. In the context of great changes in the international situation at the beginning of 1970s, cooperation with China was an urgent need for the U.S. which had been trapped in the quagmire of Vietnam War, struggling to cope with competition from the Soviet Union and facing a stalemate in relations with India. Quite a few scholars have speculated that the Nixon administration, which was having tension with Japan on trade issues, changed its former position on the Diaoyu Islands so as to make China cooperate with the U.S. against the Soviet Union. It certainly should not be overstated that the factor of pleasing China had some influence on U.S. policy regarding the Diaoyu Islands. So far, there is no real evidence that the change in U.S. policy was related to the PRC. Interestingly, the Diaoyu Islands issue was not addressed in the dialogue between Premier Zhou Enlai and Dr. Henry Kissinger (then Nixon’s national security adviser) when the latter secretly traveled to China.[8]

C. Taking advantage of the Diaoyu Islands issue, the U.S. was trying to drive a wedge between China and Japan. The U.S. did not and does not really care about the sovereignty ownership of the Diaoyu Islands, just like its popular strategy pattern regarding the Northern Territories (known in Russia as Southern Kuriles) issue in1950s—what the U.S. really cares about is how to maximize its interests in the region, i.e. to prevent a rapprochement between Japan and the USSR through driving a wedge of territorial dispute that could be used as leverage for both sides. To this end, in what was later known as the “Dulles’ Warning” (Secretary Dulles warned that Japan’s residual sovereignty over the Ryukyus could be endangered, if the Japanese side were about to accept the Soviet offer of “two islands return” in 1956), the U.S. Secretary of State drew upon Article 26 of the Treaty of San Francisco and combined the Northern Territories issue with the U.S. commitment of Japanese residual sovereignty over the Ryukyus, which successfully involved the U.S. in the Soviet-Japanese negotiation. Following the example of the strategy pattern utilized in Northern Territories dispute, the U.S. has also successfully driven a wedge of territorial dispute between Japan and China in 1970s, which imposed on Japan more difficulties in getting rid of the U.S. security protection, because the existence of sovereignty dispute over the Diaoyu Islands adjacent to Okinawa would give a more adequate excuse for the U.S. troops to garrison there against “communist threat” after “Okinawa Reversion”, whereas it could also be used as an excuse for lying to the Chinese side that the U.S. military presence there is a guard opposing the revival of Japanese militarism. The long-term Sino-Japanese competition derived from the territorial dispute is beneficial to the U.S. in West Pacific, so that it might be able to achieve success one way or another.


III. U.S. Position on Application of the Security Treaty to the Diaoyu Islands


Unlike the high-sounding propaganda of application of the Security Treaty to the Diaoyu Islands in recent years, the U.S. government kept its position as low-key as possible in 1970s.

The Nixon administration determined that the U.S. may give the Japanese side an ambiguous explanation about Article V of the Security Treaty. The caution of Nixon administration can be seen in several declassified documents, for instance, a secret “Briefing paper on Senkakus” (April 6, 1972) for Mr. Kissinger’s Trip to Japan stating: “If the GOJ ask whether the Mutual Security Treaty will apply to the Senkakus after reversion…you should reply that the terms of the Security Treaty apply to ‘territories under the administration of Japan’ and therefore could be interpreted to apply to the Senkakus.”[9] In early March of 1974, while meeting with Director General of the Defense AgencySadanori Yamanaka at a luncheon, Charge d’Affaires ad Interim of U.S. Embassy in Japan Thomas P. Shoesmith offered his personal view: “the Senkakus fall within the scope of the Security Treaty since we acknowledge them to be territory under the administration of Japan.”[10]Director General Yamanaka was not satisfied with this answer, he continued to ask “what the U.S. intended to do if the PRC were to attempt to wrest the Senkakus from Japan”, which the U.S. Charge d’Affaires made no remarks upon.[11] In an informal conversation later, Charge d’Affaires Thomas P. Shoesmith talked with Mr. Okawara, an official from Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan about this issue in a very candid way, saying: “I saw little if any possibility of our going beyond the position we had already taken on that issue.” In addition, he urged that Yamanaka be advised not to press for any clarification of what U.S. reactions might be in the event that some threat to those islands should develop.[12]

As a matter of fact, the ambiguity of the “constitutional processes” in Article V of the Security Treaty, which is similar to Yamanaka’s question mentioned above, had already been pointed out at the Hearings in October of 1971—Senator John S. Cooper indicated that: “I think you know we have been considering the question of constitutional processes for several years. At the time these treaties, such as the treaty with Japan, were agreed to by the Senate, many members raised the question as to what the phrase meant, and said ‘constitutional processes’ meant we would not enter into any war without the authority of the Congress. ” Unfortunately, the U.S. officials at the Hearings had not given any definite comment on Senator Cooper’s opinion.[13] In view of above-mentioned analysis, the U.S. has preserved operational flexibility and freedom in a possible armed conflict on the Diaoyu Islands between China and Japan.

  After the climax of Baodiao movement in 1970s, the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands seemed to have been laid to rest for a long time on account of important understanding and consensus on “leaving the issue of Diaoyu Dao to be resolved later” reached between the older generation of leaders of the two countries who were normalizing China-Japan relations for larger interest of both. In the middle of 1990s, the Diaoyu Islands issue had once again become a hotspot of international concern due to Japanese right-wing’s provocative actions, and the issue of application of the Security Treaty to the Diaoyu Islands had also been discussed passionately in America thereupon. At that time,the Clinton administration was trying to improve relations with China, although some differences between the State and Defense Departments over this issue had emerged in public, which represented a broader disagreement over U.S. policy priorities in East Asia.

According to the New York Times of September 16, and October 20, 1996, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan Walter F. Mondale said in interviews over the Diaoyu Islands issue: “The United States takes no position on who owns the islands…American forces would not be compelled by the treaty to intervene in a dispute over them…The status of the Senkakus was similar to that of Taiwan, with which the United States has no defense treaty.”[14] So far, it is still not clear whether the comment of Ambassador Mondale had been approved by the White House before the interview, or he just did not know the related U.S. position which was adopted by the Nixon administration and had remained unchangedfor all subsequent administrations. Despite repeated queries by the press, the State Department did not give specific answers to questions of whether the Security Treaty covered the Diaoyu Islands, for example on September 23, 1996, then Acting State Department spokesman, Glyn Davies, while answering a question on the U.S. reaction to a military conflict, said even in a very ambiguous way that: “It is not the kind of issue that’s worth elevating beyond a war of words, where we are now…I don’t think you’ll find that the United States will be saying a whole lot about it.”[15]

The CRS Report of September 30, 1996 specifically concluded that the Security Treaty applies to the Diaoyu Islands.[16] From this we can infer that the statement of Ambassador Mondale ought not to represent the U.S. official position. The State Department might think that a specific and public clarification on the application of the Security Treaty to the Diaoyu Islands would exasperate China and disrupt subsequentU.S. diplomacy. Thus, the State Department hadremained ambiguous in policy statement afterwards.In contrast to the State Department’s reticence on this matter, the Pentagon publicly stated that the Diaoyu Islands were included in the geographical area covered by the Security Treaty. Kurt Campbell, then Assistant Secretary of Defense stated in an interview with the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun on November 28, 1996: “…The U.S. agreement on the return of Okinawa to Japan clarified that the Senkaku Islands fall under Japanese administration. This was clearly specified by the United States for security purposes…America made a solemn promise in the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty to defend Japan’s territory and areas under its administration in time of emergency. We will keep this promise.”[17]

As China is rapidly rising, the U.S. is increasingly regarding China as its strategic competitor, which has removed the differences between the State and Defense Departments over the issue of application of the Security Treaty. Along with the worsening situation near the Diaoyu Islands since 2010, the Obama administration which accelerated the “pivot to Asia”, started to make more clear and tough statements on this issue. On November 29, 2012, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved an amendment to National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, stating that: “while the United States takes no position on the ultimate sovereignty of the Senkaku islands, the United States acknowledges the administration of Japan over the Senkaku Islands…The unilateral action of a third party will not affect the United States’ acknowledgment of the administration of Japan over the Senkaku Islands…The United States reaffirms its commitment to the Government of Japan under Article V of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security…”[18]

During his state visit to Japanin April 2014, President Barack Obama expressed that: “…Let me reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, and Article 5 covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands.” There had been nothing new in content of President Obama’s statement, but it was the first time that a President of the United States publicly speaks out that position. It only has a symbolic significance in fact, because President Obama has not given a commitment of using force to defend the Diaoyu Islands for Japan. When answering the question from the CNN reporter that “Are you saying that the U.S. would consider using military force were China to have some sort of military incursion in those islands to protect those islands?”, President Obama said: “The treaty between the United States and Japan preceded my birth, so obviously, this isn’t a ‘red line’ that I’m drawing; It is the standard interpretation over multiple administrations of the terms of the alliance, which is that territories under the administration of Japan are covered under the treaty. There’s no shift in position. There’s no ‘red line’ that’s been drawn. We’re simply applying the treaty.”[19] From this point of view, the U.S. has still preserved the de facto operational flexibility which is provided in Article V of the Security Treaty—“each Party...declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes”. At his joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 28, 2015, President Obama reiterated exactly the same words regarding the application of the Security Treaty to the Diaoyu Islands which he expressed in April 2014.[20]


IV. Prospect of the U.S. Policy on the Diaoyu Islands


Comparing to the Okinawa Island that accommodates U.S. military presence, there is no significant strategic value in the Diaoyu Islands. The U.S. is not actually concerned about the ownership of the Diaoyu Islands. And based on the preceding analysis, the U.S. cognition of sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands has only a limited impact on its policy-making which seems to indeed rest with its national interests and certain administration’s consideration of priorities—for this, the U.S. could not only hold back its ally’s claim, but also take into account its competitor’s concern for some time.

There will be no significant changes in the America’s current position regarding the Diaoyu Islands issue, and the U.S. perhaps might not change its strategy of “driving a wedge” between China and Japan at least in the short term, especially before some fundamental changes occur in the China-U.S.-Japan Trilateral Relations and the balance of power among them. During the Obama administration, the U.S. policy on the Diaoyu Islands has reached the peak of “containing China”—except for taking no sides on sovereignty issue. It acknowledgedthrough legislationJapanese claim regarding the “rights of administration”, and the low-key manner regarding application of the Security Treaty established by Nixon administration were thoroughly altered by the president’s endorsement in public. Facing a lot of pressure from anti-China groups in America, the Trump administration might hardly go backward on the Diaoyu Islands issue unless being attracted by significant interests, henceforth maybe could only reiterate the existing expression of Obama administration. However, it’s worth noting that President Trump had used the word “areas” instead of “territories” (because “area” does not have the possible implication of sovereignty which “territory” has, it might be a friendly signal to China), while stating in joint press conference with Prime Minister Abe on February 10, 2017: “We are committed to the security of Japan and all areas under its administrative control, and to further strengthening our very crucial alliance.”[21] After all, there is no real need for the Trump administration to work out a more radical policy on the Diaoyu Islands, because the China-U.S. relationshipthat has been developing in a good direction for the time being is very important for both countries. But this does not mean that the Trump administration will not alter its policy on the Diaoyu Islands because of some unexpected conflicts or under serious pressure from American hard-liners.

At present and for a quite long time later in the future, the U.S. primary approach tothe Diaoyu Islands issuemay still focus on maintaining China-Japan competition over those islands with caution to avoid escalation and loss of control, which can offer a rational excuse for the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. Nevertheless, once the U.S. views the so called “China threat” as a real damaging factor in breaking the “balance of power” in the East China Sea, it would certainly alter the policy, even might do a little fine adjustment on the long-term unchanged “neutral” position regarding sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands, such as supporting Japanese claim in disguise through declassifying and publicizing its archives that contain so-called evidence against China’s claim, or indulging the Japanese in petty mean actions. With regard to the “constitutional processes” stipulated in Article V of the Security Treaty, the U.S. may hardly clarify its legal interpretation, because it involves interpreting similar expression of other treaties, the ambiguity of which is helpful for the U.S. to preserve the operational flexibility.



Dr. Cao Qun, Associate Research Fellow, Center for Maritime Security and Cooperation, China Institute of International Studies.



Source: International Strategic Studies, No. 3, July 2017.


[1] Of the 52 participating countries, 49 signed the Treaty of San Francisco, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Soviet Union refused. From the start of the conference, the Soviet Union expressed vigorous and vocal opposition to the draft treaty text prepared by the United States and the United Kingdom. China was not invited to participate in the conference despite being one of the main victims of the Japanese aggression. On August 15, 1951 and September 18, 1951, the PRC published statements denouncing the treaty, stating that it was illegal and should not be recognized.

[2] See the Russian text of the statement of the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Из выступления первого заместителя министра иностранных дел СССР А. А. Громыко на Конференции в Сан-Франциско 5 сентября 1951 г., цит. по: «Правда» от 7 сентября 1951 г.,

[3] “In considering the question of sovereignty over trust territories, sovereignty (or what may be described as residuary sovereignty) must be distinguished from its exercise.” See Oppenheim's International Law: Volume 1 Peace (9th edition), edited by Sir Robert Jennings QC, Sir Arthur Watts KCMG QC, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 316.

[4] FRUS, 1951, Volume VI, Part 1, pp. 1152-1153.

[5] FRUS, 1952–1954, Volume XIV, Part 2, p. 1092.

[6] See U.S. Congress Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Okinawa Reversion Treaty, 92nd Cong., 1st Sess., Executive Rept. No. 92-10, November 2, 1971, Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Office, 1971, p. 5.

[7] Richard C. Bush, “An American Perspective on Maritime Asia,” The Brookings Institution, as prepared for delivery at the 2013 East China Sea Peace Forum, August 5, 2013, p. 5.

[8] Paul J. Smith, “The Senkaku/Diaoyu Island Controversy: A Crisis Postponed,” Naval War College Review, Spring 2013, Vol. 66, No. 2, p. 34.

[9]DNSA, Briefing Papers for Mr. Kissinger's Trip to Japan, Memorandum, April 6, 1972, JU01523, Senkakus, p. 2.

[10]DNSA, Views of the Defense Minister, Confidential, Memorandum of Conversation, March 9, 1974, Japan and the U. S., 1977-1992, JA00081, pp. 2-3.

[11]DNSA, Views of the Defense Minister, Confidential, Memorandum of Conversation, March 9, 1974, Japan and the U. S., 1977-1992, JA00081, p. 3.

[12]DNSA, Invitation to Minister Yamanaka, Letter, March 28, 1974, Japan and the U. S., 1977-1992, JA00082, p. 2.

[13] Okinawa Reversion Treaty, 92nd Cong., 1st Sess., Ex. J. 92-1, October 27, 28 and 29, 1971, Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Office, 1971, p. 22.

[14] Nicholas D. Kristof, “Would You Fight for These Islands,” New York Times, October 20, 1996.

[15] Kerry Dumbaughet al., China’s Maritime Territorial Claims: Implications for U.S. Interests, CRS Report for Congress, November 12, 2001, p. 23.

[16] Larry Niksch, Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands Dispute: The U.S. Legal Relationship and Obligations, CRS Report 96-798 F, September 30, 1996, p. 5.

[17] Kerry Dumbaughet al., China’s Maritime Territorial Claims: Implications for U.S. Interests, CRS Report for Congress, November 12, 2001, p. 24.

[18] SEC. 1251. SENSE OF THE SENATE ON THE SITUATION IN THE SENKAKU ISLANDS, in FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act, H.R. 4310, P.L.112-239.

[19] Joint Press Conference with President Obama and Prime Minister Abe of Japan, April 24, 2014.

[20] “Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Abe of Japan in Joint Press Conference,” April 28, 2015,

[21] “Remarks by President Trump and Prime Minister Abe of Japan in Joint Press Conference,” February 10, 2017,


                         (Translated by Cao Qun)