• Keep the islands within the U.S. alliance structure and security umbrella.
The keystone in this proposed diplomatic solution is the 1943 Cairo Declaration. The controlling clause reads as follows:
It is [the Allies’] purpose that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and The Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China. [emphasis added]
At the end of World War II, the Asia-Pacific region was roiled by revolution and the onset of the Cold War. That precluded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from being party to the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty (SFPT). Still, China has vehemently called for Japan to abide by the Cairo Declaration, which made its way into the SFPT via the Potsdam Proclamation. That makes Japan legally beholden to the previously quoted clause. Calls for the Cairo Declaration to govern in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute have been made by such eminent voices as the PRC State Council, Communist Party of China Secretary Xi Jinping, the Foreign Ministry, and the People’s Liberation Army’s generals and commentators.
Why not hold the PRC to its word and turn the administration of the islands over to the Republic of China, thus turning the tables in this latest Chinese campaign of “legal warfare?” Settling sovereignty can continue to be deferred, as both China and Japan have done since 1972.
Experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Carnegie Endowment have suggested using the 1972 agreement as a baseline status quo. This offers all parties a prudent off-ramp to the cycle of escalation, but the “Cairo Gambit” proposed here might be a more ambitious and more lasting resolution. China may even welcome U.S. involvement in brokering a settlement, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has offered. The United States would be remiss in not taking the opportunity.
Taiwan, Japan, and the United States are all on the same side of this issue. All want stability in the western Pacific and to curtail Chinese revanchist tendencies. Taiwan could easily be convinced to go along with such a scheme.
Japan’s nationalists may bristle at the surrender of territory as a dangerous precedent in its other maritime disputes, but removing the Chinese brickbat over their heads might prove enough incentive. As well, it will likely take a “Nixon-goes-to-China” type of politician to bring Japan to agreement. The deal could even be structured in such a way that the Kurihara family, which still owns one island even after the recent national purchase, retains title transferred under ROC jurisdiction.
China’s desired end state for the islands is essentially the same as Taiwan’s. Both sides contend that the Diaoyu Islands are part of Taiwan Province. The PRC may not like the particulars of this resolution, but given the very shrill and very official calls for abiding by the Cairo Declaration, they would either agree or risk appearing to be unreasonable—or worse, irrational—claimants in the court of international public opinion. Party leaders must brook nationalistic fervor now as the leadership transition period is under way, but they too must chafe at the fact that nearly a decade of “peaceful rise” rhetoric has been washed away.
Pan-Chinese unity under the “Second United Front” movement suggests that Taiwan and China jointly develop the Diaoyu Islands. One idea was to use the islands as a bombing range. Ironically, the U.S. Navy has used and continues to use one of these very islands for the same purpose. This is a reminder that the United States has a deep, persistent historical legacy and responsibility on this issue—and throughout the western Pacific. We would do well to not only remember it, but take shrewd advantage of it.
Cary C. Chen is president and CEO of an international trading company and is a former ROC Marine.