Claims on Islands in Asian Waters – Where Does the Truth Lie? by Warren Reed

We’re so excited to have announced pre-orders for author and former ASIS agent Warren Reed’s newest book ‘An Elephant On Your Nose’. Here, Warren writes about some of the background to the book. You can order your copy now by clicking here

The comparatively small numbers of Australians who have studied, worked and lived in Asian countries know how important it is to understand how history has shaped those nations.

For example, a few years ago we were saturated with news about the Senkaku Islands – which the Chinese call the Diaoyutai – that are south of Okinawa. The Senkakus are administered by Japan but are claimed by the Chinese as their own traditional territory. Though the Senkakus have now dropped out of the media completely, they were until recently seen to be a possible flashpoint for military conflict between Japan and China. Coastguard ships and naval destroyers were patrolling the area and it seemed that skirmishes were about to take place, which could escalate into something far more serious.

No one in the media, even in Japan, bothered to check out the history of the islands, beyond countering China’s historical claims. Despite China’s assertions, there was an incident just under one-hundred years ago that tells a very different story.

In November, 1919, a Chinese fishing boat from China’s Fujian Province – 15.6 metres long, with a beam of 5.4 metres and powered by sail, rather than an engine – was fishing in Japanese waters off the Senkakus. Thirty-one men were aboard, mainly from one family, with the eldest aged 60 and quite a few youngsters aged between 11-16. A typhoon struck, seriously damaging the vessel, and to save it the crew had to cut the mast away to avoid capsizing. The storm raged for more than a month, with the crew tossed about by the wind and waves and drifting helplessly as they attempted to repair their boat. In late December, with no improvement in the weather they found themselves again within sight of the Senkakus but unfortunately their vessel was so badly damaged that it sank. The crew managed to save themselves by taking to three small dinghies they had on board.

They carefully made their way to the Islands, where Japanese fishermen from the settlement there spotted them and helped bring them ashore. They were looked after by the Japanese and their health and spirits restored until the storm finally abated in mid-January 1920. As a result of this, no lives were lost. The leader of the Japanese settlement then took them in his fishing vessel to Ishigaki Island, which is part of the Japanese island chain that stretches all the way from southern Kyushu to Formosa: now Taiwan but then Japanese territory. Ishigaki City was the administrative headquarters and was the centre of activity in the southern region of the Prefecture of Okinawa that governed the overall island chain from Naha, the capital.

COVER FINAL-An ELephant on Your Nose

COVER FINAL-An ELephant on Your Nose

The Chinese crew stayed in the city for ten days while their health improved, after which they were taken by the regular ferry service to the port of Keelung in Formosa. From there, they were repatriated to their hometown in Fujian. There were numerous communications at the time about the rescue, between the Japanese mayor of Ishigaki and the governor of the Prefecture of Okinawa, as well as with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs in Tokyo. Also in the loop was the Chinese Consul in Nagasaki in the north-western part of Japan’s Kyushu Island, who wrote a remarkable seven official letters of gratitude in Chinese on behalf of the Government of the Republic of China. All of the key Japanese involved in the rescue and repatriation of the crew were thanked, and all expenses incurred by the Japanese reimbursed. A gratuity was also included by the Chinese in appreciation of the assistance the Japanese had rendered.

All of the official documentation raised at the time, in both Chinese and Japanese, still exists in the archives. The letter that the Chinese Consul sent to the leader of the Japanese settlement in the Senkakus was lodged by his eldest son in a museum in Ishigaki City in the 1990s. There was never any dispute at the time over the fact that the Senkaku Islands belonged to Japan.

Also little known is that Okinawa itself, once the centre of the Ryukyu Kingdom, was a tributary state of China. For some centuries after the various islands in that chain were unified by the Okinawans, who were not Japanese, it was a focal point of booming Asian maritime trade. Vessels from Southeast Asia and beyond would unload their cargoes there, which were them divided up for transhipment to various ports on the China Coast. Many Chinese administrators lived there and coordinated this trade.

So, when we hear about China’s claim on islands in the East and South China Seas, we need to be mindful that history can often tell us much more than what’s presented to us by media reporters averse to a quick Google search before putting pen to paper.