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Workshop on the Diaoyu(tai)-Senkaku Dispute Held at the University of Ottawa

An endowed Chair for Taiwan Studies was founded in collaboration with the University of Ottawa in 2011 by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. Its activities are interdisciplinary, with areas of common interest and similar academic research goals covering a wide range the disciplines and fields of the Faculty of Social Science. It promotes the development of undergraduate and graduate classes in Taiwan Studies and supports associated research and public lectures.

A recent undertaking was a workshop entitled The Diaoyu(tai)-Senkaku Dispute: Its Stakes for East Asia, on September 19, 2013, presented by June Teufel Dreyer, Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami, where she teaches on China, U.S. defense policy, and international relations. Professor Dreyer was formerly senior Far East specialist at the Library of Congress, and has served as Asia policy advisor to the Chief of Naval Operations, and as commissioner of the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission established by the U.S. Congress. She has lived in China and Japan and visited Taiwan several times, and has published widely on the Chinese military, China-Taiwan relations, Sino-Japanese relations, ethnic minorities in China, and Chinese foreign policy.

A 1968 survey revealed that enormous oil reserves likely lie beneath some uninhabited islands, known in Japan as Senkaku, in the People’s Republic of China as Diaoyu, and in the Republic of China on Taiwan as Tiaoyutai. She discussed the claims of the three sides and the economic and security implications involved.

They were then regarded as Japanese but both China and Taiwan began asserting historically-based claims to the area. As part of a 1972 agreement establishing normal diplomatic relations between the PRC and Japan, their two governments agreed to shelve the issue of sovereignty. Recent years have seen more assertive foreign policy behavior from China, backed by its burgeoning economic and military power, and increasing pressure from Beijing to claim the islands. This has been met with a move from Japan to solidify its jurisdiction over them. The dispute has escalated since a 2010 clash between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard ships, and some observers predict that ownership of the islands could be the catalyst for war.

The last part of the workshop raised the point that prior legal decisions favor Japan. Courts have tended to rule that discovery conveys only inchoate title, and that more concrete acts of actual occupation or exercise of authority are needed to demonstrate sovereignty over an island. A state that has inchoate title over a territory may lose sovereignty over it by prescription if another state actually occupies or exercises state authority over the territory in question. The first state must protest the occupation by the second state, something which China did not do until after oil was discovered nearby.

Prof. Teufel concluded her presentation with an interesting quote from Professor Koomen of the Faculty of Law at the University of Amsterdam:“International law does not exist. It is merely a collection of legal problems waiting for political solutions”. At the end, a group discussion with the audience rounded out the workshop.