The Long Shadow of WWII Over Maritime Asia


Over the weekend, the world observed the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in the Pacific theater. Thoughtful analysts have explored how the war and postwar settlement continue to shape historical memory in East Asia. Over at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, we have a collection of maps that explain Asia at the end of the war, as well as several pieces on the role that maritime Asia played in the strategies of the victorious Allies in 1945. Rarely recalled, however, is the fact that the 21st-century standoffs over the Kuril Islands, Spratly and Paracel Islands, and Senkaku Islands have roots in the postwar settlement, which was largely constructed by the United States.

On September 8, 1951, 48 nations signed the Treaty of San Francisco, officially making peace with Japan, which had been defeated and occupied six years earlier. The treaty sought to formalize the Allies’ existing agreements on the shape of the postwar world. This included the 1941 Atlantic Charter’s commitment to “no territorial aggrandizement” and the restoration of self-government to conquered states, as well as the 1943 Cairo Declaration’s commitment to strip Japan of all territory it had obtained through conquest since the early 20th century. The Treaty was informed by agreements reached between the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945, as the Allies planned for peace. Notably, however, neither the Republic of China (ROC) nor the People’s Republic of China (PRC) attended the San Francisco conference or signed the treaty, as they were embroiled in civil war.

The map below was attached to the San Francisco Treaty and used to illustrate the territorial clauses of the agreement. The dashed lines represented the territory that Japan was to relinquish, and the visible typeface is the actual text of Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty, which identify the territories Japan was to lose. Included in these articles were Japan’s renunciation of Korea, Formosa (present day Taiwan), and the Pescadores, as well as its holdings in the Pacific Islands. Japan also relinquished the Kuril Islands, the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, and the Ryukyu Islands, including the Senkakus.


The map did not, however, depict the ambiguity that surrounded the ultimate disposition of several of the territories that Japan agreed to relinquish in 1951. In some instances, the Allies failed to specify what land features a particular island group did or did not include. In others, they did not identify the country that was to assume control of the territory Japan renounced.

Under Article 2(c) of the Treaty, the Kuril Islands were definitively transferred to the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Allies had agreed at Yalta in February of 1945 that the Soviet Union should recoup the Kurils as a condition of the USSR’s entry into the Pacific war. (Japan had seized them from Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.) The San Francisco Treaty did not clarify, however, whether four islands that Japan identifies as the Northern Territories were to be considered as part of the Kuril chain. At the San Francisco conference, Japan argued that Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai were not part of the Kurils and were being occupied by the Soviet Union illegally. In a rare instance in which the United States took a position on a sovereignty dispute, it backed Japan’s claims over that of the Soviet Union. Just six years after Japan’s defeat and with the Cold War in full swing, ally had become adversary and vice versa. The Soviet Union refused to sign the treaty as a result, and the Kuril Island/Northern Territories dispute has never been settled. Russia and Japan still do not have a peace treaty that officially ends the Second World War.

Unlike the modern day Kuril Islands/Northern Territories issue, the South China Sea sovereignty disputes did not begin due to treaty ambiguity. Before the Second World War, Japan, France, and China all had claims in the Spratlys and Paracels. During the war, Japan annexed parts of both island groups in its southward push, and then withdrew after its defeat. The 1945-1951 period helped to lay the groundwork for present-day claims in the South China Sea.

Immediately following the war, France prepared to recognize Vietnamese independence and to bequeath its South China Sea claims to Vietnam. In 1946, the ROC took possession of the Paracels and Itu Aba in the Spratlys, which it also claimed in their entirety. The same year, the Philippines began to advance into the Spratlys. Amidst this postwar island grabbing frenzy, France sent forces to the South China Sea and occupied some islands in 1946-1947. France granted sovereignty to the Republic of Vietnam in 1949 and with it its claim of sovereignty over the Paracels. In 1950, amidst the Chinese civil war, ROC troops withdrew from the Paracels entirely, retaining only their presence on Itu Aba.

Under Article 2(f) of the San Francisco Treaty, Japan renounced all of its existing claims to the Spratlys and Paracels. The problem, however, was that the treaty did not identify any rightful sovereign. In their efforts to avoid adjudicating territorial claims among the existing claimants as of 1951, the Allies failed to specify the recipient of the islands that Japan renounced. Japan’s withdrawal and disavowal of claims in the South China Sea helped to create a political vacuum that was filled by present-day Spratly and Paracel claimants.

Finally, there was the issue of the Ryukyu Islands — the island chain that includes Okinawa and, in the eyes of the San Francisco Treaty signatories, the Senkaku Islands. Under Article 3 of the treaty, the Ryukyus were left in the trusteeship of the United States. At the San Francisco conference, John Foster Dulles coupled this trusteeship provision with a verbal pronouncement that Japan would retain “residual sovereignty” over the territories identified in Article 3. The San Francisco map clearly shows that the treaty signatories considered the Senkaku Islands to be part of America’s Ryukyu trusteeship. Trouble arose much later, however, as the United States prepared to return the Ryukyus to Japanese administration under the Okinawa Reversion agreement.

The United States and Japan announced their joint intent to return the Ryukyus to Japanese control in 1967 and signed the Okinawa Reversion agreement in 1971. In the agreement, the United States relinquished all rights to the Ryukyus it had acquired under the San Francisco Treaty and restored full administrative authority to Japan. In advance of reversion, Taiwan voiced opposition to the return of the Senkakus as part of the package, arguing that these islands were not, in fact, part of the Ryukyus, but rather part of Taiwan. Japan had renounced its territorial claim to Taiwan under Article 2(b) of San Francisco, so by this logic, the Senkakus should have reverted to control by the ROC. The PRC also argued that the Senkakus were part of Taiwan, and therefore ultimately belonged to China.

In the case of Article 3 and its territorial disposition, the issue is neither that the Allies failed to specify what was placed in trusteeship, nor that it is unclear to whom the islands had been bequeathed. The heart of the matter is the fact that neither the ROC nor the PRC was present at or a signatory to the San Francisco settlement. Despite their protracted standoff over the political status of Taiwan, both the ROC and the PRC insisted that the Senkakus had been wrongfully included in the Ryukyu chain, and thus, in the package of islands that wound up under U.S. trusteeship. The modern day Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai dispute was born, and both Beijing and Taipei maintain this position today.

On this 70th anniversary, we remember a conflict that engulfed the globe and took the lives of tens of millions of soldiers and civilians. We honor a settlement that has been foundational to the Long Peace since 1945. But even this peace agreement, and the postwar order that has been built in the decades since, has a darker side. The territorial clauses of the San Francisco Treaty, and the map on which they appear to be so precisely drawn, are reminders that the trappings of victory and reconciliation may also hold the seeds of future conflicts. This legacy of ambiguity in the postwar settlement is the unhappy inheritance of 21st-century maritime Asia.


Mira Rapp-Hooper is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.


Image: Dean Acheson signing peace treaty with Japan, 1951. U.S. State Department

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