Well, it finally came to an actual clash—albeit, thank goodness, with water cannon, not actual munitions—over the contested East China Sea islands, and it was not China but Taiwan that provoked the escalation. On Sept. 25, some 40 Taiwanese fishing vessels accompanied by 12 patrol boats dispatched by Taipei entered waters off the islets that the Chinese call Diaoyu, the Japanese call Senkaku, and the Taiwanese call Diaoyutai or Tiaoyutai. When a Japanese Coast Guard ship fired a water cannon to disperse the fishing boats, a Taiwanese patrol ship fired its own water cannon at the Japanese ship. The Taiwanese ships were apparently given a warning to clear off but refused, asserting that they had the right to be in their own territorial waters. Many of the Taiwanese ships were flying banners declaiming their national right to the islands. The Taiwanese fleet, which approached the islands at around 8 AM, departed by midday, according to Japanese authorities. (Japan Times, Sept. 26; The Telegraph, Sept. 25)
Columnist Nicholas Kristof on Sept. 19 gave over his space in the New York Times to Taiwanese scholar Han-Yi Shaw for a piece entitled "The Inconvenient Truth Behind the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands"—the inconvenient truth being that China or Taiwan have a better claim to the disputed islands than Japan. He writes:
[T]he Japanese government asserts, "From 1885 on, our government conducted on-site surveys time and again, which confirmed that the islands were uninhabited and there were no signs of control by the Qing Empire."
My research of over 40 official Meiji period documents unearthed from the Japanese National Archives, Diplomatic Records Office, and National Institute for Defense Studies Library clearly demonstrates that the Meiji government acknowledged Chinese ownership of the islands back in 1885.
Following the first on-site survey, in 1885, the Japanese foreign minister wrote, "Chinese newspapers have been reporting rumors of our intention of occupying islands belonging to China located next to Taiwan.… At this time, if we were to publicly place national markers, this must necessarily invite China's suspicion.…"
In November 1885, the Okinawa governor confirmed "since this matter is not unrelated to China, if problems do arise I would be in grave repentance for my responsibility".
"Surveys of the islands are incomplete" wrote the new Okinawa governor in January of 1892. He requested that a naval ship Kaimon be sent to survey the islands, but ultimately a combination of miscommunication and bad weather made it impossible for the survey to take place.
Although he does not state it explicitly, Shaw implies that Qing China had governed the islands as part of Taiwan:
When Japan annexed the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in 1895, it detached them from Taiwan and placed them under Okinawa Prefecture. Moreover, the Japanese name "Senkaku Islands" itself was first introduced in 1900 by academic Kuroiwa Hisashi and adopted by the Japanese government thereafter. Half a century later when Japan returned Taiwan to China, both sides adopted the 1945 administrative arrangement of Taiwan, with the Chinese unaware that the uninhabited "Senkaku Islands" were in fact the former Diaoyu Islands. This explains the belated protest from Taipei and Beijing over U.S. administration of the islands after the war.
Of course the conventional wisdom is that nobody was aware until a UN study of 1968 that there is likely quite a bit of oil under the islands, giving both Taipei and Beijing impetus to make their claims. We question whether China's Qing rulers had paid enough attention to the islands to place them under Taiwan's administration, and wish Shaw were clearer on this point. We also note that, like practically everyone else, he ignores the role of the independent kingdom of the Ryukyu Islands, which only came under formal Japanese sovereignty in 1879. Today, Japan considers the Senkakus part of Okinawa prefecture—i.e., the former Ryukyu kingdom. Did the Ryukyus make no claim to the islands before formal Japanese annexation of them was declared in 1895?
We've been asking this question for months, since we first started monitoring this conflict, hoping that a Ryukyu partisan will clarify for us.
Are you out there?