By Bruce Jacobs.

Since Ma Ying-jeou became Taiwan’s president in 2008, the Diaoyutai/Senkaku issue has come to the fore. Ma Ying-jeou participated in the Diaoyutai movement in 1970, when he was only about twenty, and his strong interest in the islands continued when he wrote his doctoral thesis on the topic.[1] During a September 2012 visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taipei, it became very clear that President Ma himself runs Taiwan’s Diaoyutai policy.

According to the Ma government, Taiwan’s claims to the Diaoyutai go back to 1403 during the early Ming Dynasty.[2] However, the relevant material provides little information and mostly likely is false since Taiwan had no permanent Chinese communities until the Dutch brought in Chinese labour after their arrival in 1624. Chinese records did not even mention Taiwan until the seventeenth century during late Ming Dynasty.[3] The Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands were much smaller than Taiwan, uninhabited and much further from the Ming to Taiwan’s east. Is it likely that they were named in early Ming documents when Taiwan was ignored?

In a 1999 publication published in the same series at Ma Ying-jeou’s doctoral thesis, Han-yi Shaw also makes a claim for China’s Ming Dynasty ownership. Shaw states that the Ryukyu Kingdom became a tributary state of the Ming in 1372.[4] However, Shaw makes no mention of the fact that the Ryukyu Kingdom simultaneously was also a tributary of Japan. Nor does he mention that tributary nations conducted “tribute missions” with China primarily for trade purposes. Another problem with the tributary argument is that the Ma government now states that the United States Occupation Forces made a mistake in considering the Diaoyutai as part of the Ryukyu archipelago because a huge trench separates the Diaoyutai from the Ryukyus. Thus, according to the Ma government, the Diaoyutai should not have been returned to Japan when the Ryukyus reverted to Japan in 1972. Yet, if one wants to argue that the tributary relationship between the Ryukyus and the Ming was of vital importance in the history of the Diaoyutai, then the claim that the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands are not part of the Ryukyus must fail. Ironically, in a more recent piece, Shaw argues,

So instead of proving the islands belonged to Ming China, this historical record proves the opposite. The Chinese should recognize that records from the Qing Dynasty alone are sufficient to demonstrate Chinese ownership. Chinese envoy records place the islands within the “border that separates Chinese and foreign lands,” with official gazetteers further recording “Diaoyu Island accommodates ten or more large ships” and placing it under the jurisdiction of Taiwan.[5]

One does not gain confidence in Shaw’s historical abilities from his discussion of what he calls the “Black Water Ditch” 黑水溝 where there was a “sudden change in the color of sea water from dark blue to dark black.”[6] As Shaw says,“this sudden change of sea water color was known to create a strong sense of fear and unpredictability among those who set sail across it, since reaching this area meant exiting familiar Chinese waters.”[7]

Shaw argues this Black Water Ditch refers to the trench between China and the Ryukyu Islands.[8] The Black Ditch (to use Macabe Kelliher’s translation), however, was actually in the Taiwan Strait to the west of Taiwan not far from Penghu. [9] Shaw’s placement of the Black Ditch to the east of Taiwan is unique.

Recently, the Ma government has claimed that the Treaty of Taipei, signed as a Peace Treaty between Chiang Kai-shek’s government and Japan on 25 April 1952, also provides for the return of the Diaoyutai/Senkaku to the ROC.[10] In fact, the Treaty of Taipei has absolutely no such clause[11] and such a claim continues the Ma government’s distortion of the contents of the Treaty of Taipei.[12]

The Ma government has repeatedly stated that its claims to the Diaoyutai are not the same as those of China. Yet, many of the arguments are the same. The Ma government also claims that it desires peace around the islands, yet when some hotheads from Taiwan tried to go to the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands on a fishing boat with a statue of Matsu on 24 January this year, the government escorted the boat with four Coast Guard ships.[13] The Coast Guard escort made government claims that “The voyage was a voluntary action by private citizens” look silly.[14]

Recently some scholars at Academia Sinica, using official ROC maps, have demonstrated that the Chiang Kai-shek government did not claim the Diaoyutai Islands until 1971.[15] Thus, efforts to demonstrate that the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands belong to the ROC in Taiwan suffer from huge political flaws as well as shoddy scholarship.

I have been told and a senior Taiwanese historian of Taiwan has also heard that the Japanese colonial government administered the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands through Taiwan. If true, this would be the strongest evidence that the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands do belong to Taiwan. However, some preliminary investigation suggests this is false.

The Republic of China government under Chiang Kai-shek accepted the surrender of the Japanese in Taiwan on 25 October 1945. The Taiwan Provincial Executive Commander’s Office 臺灣省行政長官公署 under Chen Yi 陳儀 published a major book with 540 tables and 1384 pages translating fifty-one years of Japanese statistics about Taiwan into Chinese.[16] Using data dated August 1946, this book suggests that the eastern most parts of “Taiwan Province” were Taiwan island itself (122°00’04” E), Pengjia Islet 彭佳嶼 (122°04’51” E) and Mianhua Islet 棉花嶼 (122°06’15” E).[17] These are the only locations east of 122°E. Yet, according to Wikipedia, the western most of the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands is further east at 123°31′0″E.[18] Some recent Japanese writing suggests that the islands were administered as part of the Ryukyus through Ishigaki City of Yaeyama Prefecture. [19] Ishigaki is the largest island in the south-west part of the Ryukyu archipelago.

The irony of this stroll through history is that both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek only claimed the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands about 1970 after a report suggested that the surrounding seas had oil. To date, no oil has been found. The main resource interest today is fishing and clearly the fishermen in northeast Taiwan have a vital interest in these seas. Fishing talks between Taiwan and Japan are stalled and one might suggest that Taiwan’s pushing its sovereignty of the islands, its support of so-called private boats going to the islands well as the apparent tacit agreement between China and Taiwan over the islands (despite Taiwan’s denials) have made progress in the fishing talks more difficult.

During our visit last September, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs—an old friend—strongly emphasized that Diaoyutai is the correct name for the islands. Ironically, the group with the strongest economic interests in the islands, the fishermen of Suao in northeastern Taiwan, refer to the islands in Hokkien with a completely different name, bû jîn tó 無人島, literally the “Uninhabited Islands.” [20]

Bruce Jacobs is Professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. His recent books include Local Politics in Rural Taiwan under Dictatorship and Democracy (2008) and Democratizing Taiwan (2012). He is currently writing a history of Taiwan. 

[1] Ma Ying-jeou, Legal Problems of Seabed Boundary Delimitationin the East China Sea (Baltimore, MD: Occasional Papers/Reprints Series in Contemporary Asian Studies, School of Law, University of Maryland, 1984.)

[3] Laurence G. Thompson, “The Earliest Chinese Eyewitness Accounts of the Formosan Aborigines,” Monumenta Serica, No. 23 (1964), p. 163.

[4] Han-yi Shaw, The Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands Dispute: Its History and an Analysis of the Ownership Claims of the P.R.C., the R.O.C. and Japan (Baltimore, MD: Occasional Papers/Reprints Series in Contemporary Asian Studies, School of Law, University of Maryland, 1999), pp. 42-69.

[5] Han-yi Shaw, “Japan’s Dubious Claim to the Diaoyus: The facts, not nationalist rhetoric, should count in a territorial dispute,” Wall Street Journal, 3 May 2012, available from

[6] Shaw, The Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands Dispute, p. 48.

[7] Ibid., pp. 48-49.

[8] Ibid, pp. 49-50.

[9] Macabe Keliher, Out of China or Yu Yonghe’s Tales of Formosa: A History of Seventeenth-Century Taiwan (Taipei: SMC Publishing, 2003), pp. 39-40 and Small Sea Travel Diaries: Yu Yonghe’s Records of Taiwan; translated from the Literary Chinese and Annotated by Macabe Keliher (Taipei: SMC Publishing, 2004), pp. 23-24, 217.

[10] Shih Hsiu-chuan, “No basis for cross-strait action on Diaoyutais: MOFA,” TaipeiTimes, 20 February 2013,p. 1.

[12] J. Bruce Jacobs, Democratizing Taiwan (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012), pp. 241-242

[15] Ko-hua Yap, Yu-wen Chen and Ching-chi Huang, “The Diaoyutai Islands on Taiwan’s Official Maps: Pre- and Post-1971,” Asian Affairs: An American Review, vol. 39, no. 2 (2012), pp. 90-105.

[16] Taiwan sheng wushiyi nian lai tongji tiyao 臺灣省五十一年來統計提要 [Statistical Abstract of Taiwan Province for the Past Fifty-One Years],  (Taipei: Statistical Office of the Taiwan Provincial Administration Agency 臺灣省行政長官公署統計室編印, 1946; reprint, Taipei: Guting shuwu 古亭書屋, 1969).

[17] Ibid., p. 52.

[19] Hiromichi Moteki, The Senkaku Islands Constitute an Intrinsic Part of Japan (Tokyo:

Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, 2010), pp. 9, 35-36. I am indebted to Frank Muyard for this reference.

[20] Many thanks to Hsu Chien-jung (Mattel) for this information.


  1. This makes interesting reading, Bruce. However, I find the labelling of protesters as hotheads (similarly generals in Don Keyser’s piece) denigrating, as if somehow academics live more rational lives or are emotionally in some way more stable. I would find it more skilful to find a chink in one’s own ego than project hotheaded shortcomings onto those whose paths allow for an alternative analysis and expression of opinion.

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