Stanford scholar illuminates history of disputed China Sea islands

Friction between China and Japan over sovereignty for the resource-rich Diaoyu Islands has escalated in recent years. Research by Stanford graduate student Xiang Zhai reveals new details about the dispute that might help resolve it.

Senkaku Islands

This rocky outcropping in the East China Sea is part of the disputed Senkaku Islands, which are also known as the Diaoyu Islands. Stanford graduate student Xiang Zhai has found new details of the islands’ history in the Hoover Institution Archives. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A desolate chain of small, rocky islands in the East China Sea has caused more than a few waves between Japan and China in recent years.

The Senkaku Islands, also known as the Diaoyu Islands, were under Chinese rule from ancient times until the late 19th century when Japan laid claim to the uninhabited islands. The United States affirmed the Japanese claim in 1971 under the Okinawa reversion agreement.

China renewed its interest in the 1970s when oil and natural gas were found there. Many Chinese also perceive the Diaoyu Islands as a symbol of China’s historical defeats. As such, the islands have continued to be a source of tension between the two nations.

New research by Stanford’s Xiang Zhai, a master’s degree candidate in the Center for East Asian Studies, dispels widely accepted narratives about the history of the islands. Zhai says his findings, which draw from the recently declassified diaries of Chiang Kai-shek, could help resolve the conflict.

Zhai’s investigation centers on Chiang, who ruled China from 1927 to 1949 and Taiwan from 1949 to 1975. His alleged indifference toward the fate of the Diaoyu Islands is frequently cited as the reason that the islands have not come back under Chinese control. According to Zhai, academia has paid insufficient attention to Chiang’s role in determining the islands’ fate.

Zhai spoke with the Stanford News Service about his research:

What do the Diaoyu Islands mean to the Chinese people today?

These islands may be small, but they are a point of national pride for the Chinese people and their ownership represents political influence and security.  The resolution of the disputes will carry tremendous psychological weight, as the Chinese use the status of the Diaoyu Islands to evaluate China’s success. It has been the consensus among the Chinese that the government should resolve the Diaoyu Island disputes; therefore, the government is constantly pressured to revisit the issue.

On a pragmatic level, the dispute is about oil. China’s energy demands will comprise a quarter of the world’s by 2035, and the islands could help meet those needs.

Why was Chiang Kai-shek indifferent about them?

Page from Chiang Kai-shek's diary

This June 1948 entry is from the diary of Chiang Kai-shek, who fled mainland China after the nationalist forces he led lost the civil war to the Communists. (Image credit: Chiang Kai-shek Diaries/Hoover Institution Archives)

First, Chiang recognized on the eve of the 1943 Cairo Conference [with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British leader Winston Churchill] that China’s claim to Okinawa might raise U.S. concerns about Chinese expansionism. So, he became more cautious and less proactive about the Okinawa issue. Second, in the years following World War II Chiang had to prioritize fighting the civil war. When he lost that war, he focused on protecting his base in Taiwan, from where he planned to regroup and launch a counterattack on mainland China. Chiang’s preoccupation with these missions likely prevented him from focusing on Okinawa.

Third, although Chiang proposed to Roosevelt at Cairo that Okinawa be placed under joint administration by the U.S. and China, the U.S.’s sole administration of Okinawa was acceptable to him, especially after the State Department assured Chiang’s ambassador in 1952 that the U.S. did not support restoring the Ryukyus (Okinawa) to Japan.

Finally, Chiang did not believe that the U.S. would return strategically important Okinawa to Japan without a struggle. It was only after the Kennedy administration announced America’s intention to restore Okinawa to Japan that Chiang became more attentive.

How did you come upon Chiang’s diaries?

Chiang’s diaries have been in storage at the Hoover Institution since 2005 and were fully declassified in 2009. Luckily, they were immediately available to me as a research assistant at Hoover and as a master’s student at Stanford.  The challenge was that the information I needed was scattered throughout the diaries – a full 76 boxes of material.

I read every page to make sure that I gleaned all the relevant information. It was easy to miss references to the events because the diaries were written informally and often included only passing mention of Chiang’s thoughts on the subject. I familiarized myself with Chiang’s style and get inside his head.

What was most surprising about your findings?

The most surprising discovery for me was learning that Chiang studied history himself. In early 1967, he read a book concerning the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom. He immediately regretted not having read it sooner. He wrote in his diary that his lack of knowledge about the Ryukyus’ tributary relations with China and the story of it passing into Japanese hands had resulted in his “loss of the perfect opportunity to recover the Ryukyus.” I infer that the opportunity he was referring to is the Cairo Conference. It’s remarkable that Chiang’s change of heart in the 1960s might have been influenced by a history book.

Another surprising finding was that Roosevelt, Churchill, [U.S. Secretary of State Cordell] Hull, [British Foreign Minister Anthony] Eden and [Soviet leader Josef] Stalin all agreed to return Okinawa to China after WWII during or around the time of the 1943 Cairo Conference. China had significant disagreements with all three major Allies concerning Myanmar [Burma], India, Hong Kong and so on – still, Chiang gained seemingly unanimous approval from his peers on the Okinawa issue.

How do you think your work will impact Chiang’s legacy?

I hope to correct both the public and academic perceptions that Chiang did not care about the Ryukyu Islands. This could also change the common perception that Chiang is responsible for the Diaoyu Island disputes today.

Does your research have implications for contemporary politics in the region?

I believe my research contributes to the larger conversation. The Potsdam Declaration delineated the post-war Japanese territory and granted Japan “the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.” Reading Chiang Kai-shek’s documents, I came to the same conclusion he did in his late career: that the Ryukyu and the Diaoyu Islands are included in the minor islands referred to in the declaration.

Though Japan benefits in part from controlling the islands, the Japanese have alienated the Chinese, lost China as a friend, and stirred up unhappy historical memories. This has been a lose-lose situation that we can resolve by understanding its true history.

Media Contacts

Xiang Zhai, Humanities: xzhai2@stanford.edu
Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu