Historical justification of sovereign right over territorial space of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands: Irredentism and Sino-Japanese relations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Marwyn S. Samuels


Geography, Economic history, International law, International relations, History, irredentism

Subject Categories



This study focuses on the historical justification of territorial space. It argues that the historical argument of territorial disputes or irredentism is usually prevalent in debates claiming "new territory" by many states. Throughout the case of the Diaoyu Islands dispute between Japan and China, this research reveals history of the Diaoyu Islands and the resulting claims of sovereignty over these islands. The major thesis is to expose the fact that people living in different places during different periods have different concepts of territorial space.

The Diaoyu Islands are located in the East China Sea between mainland China and the Liuqiu Kingdom (or today's Okinawa Prefecture of Japan). These islands were discovered as early as the eleventh century and began to be used as navigation aids by the Chinese traveling to the Liuqiu Kingdom from the fourteenth century. During more than a half millennium, both the Chinese and the Liuqiuan recognized the existence of the Diaoyu Islands. Under Pax Sinica, there were no territorial confrontations between China as the suzerainty nation and the Liuqiu Kingdom as the tributary nation. In fact, historical evidence shows that the Chinese living in the fourteenth century had their own view of "sovereignty" and their own way of how to delimit the international boundary between China and the Liuqiu Kingdom. Specifically, the Chinese created the Sinitic world order by networking investiture-tributary system (to demonstrate the Chinese way of hegemony) in the Asian region. This study demonstrates that the Chinese during the imperial era created their own way to demarcate legitimate political space or administrative geography nationally and marine space in the East China Sea internationally.

Only after 1840, when the Western powers, in particular the British, attacked China, did the Chinese realize the existence of an alternative way to create hegemony through imperialism. During many chaotic eras in China, the Japanese quietly invested and developed the Diaoyu Islands prior the Second World War. Unlike the Chinese, the Japanese government eventually built a national marker on the Diaoyu Islands, symbolizing their "sovereignty" rights over these islands. Until 1969, these islands were simply "useless" for both Japan and China. Only after the discovery of natural resources under the Diaoyu Islands, did the dispute of ownership ignite the blasting fuse of territorial confrontations between two "superpowers" in the Asian region. This research reveals that the Diaoyu Islands case is not merely a political contention because of economic causes, but this dispute deeply involves cultural and historical conflicts of 2,000 years of Sino-Japanese relations. In addition, the Diaoyu dispute exposes complicated geopolitical relations between Japan, China, the United States, and Taiwan in the Asian-Pacific Region.


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