The Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute between China and Japan is rooted in the ambiguous US policy on the isles, formulated in the 1970s, as declassified American documents show.
Indeed, this ambiguity, of maintaining US neutrality on sovereignty yet giving Japan administrative power over the islands, backed by a mutual defence treaty, has emboldened Tokyo to take possession of, or "nationalise", the islands, last month.
The Diaoyu/Senkaku issue first cropped up in 1970 when the United States bundled the islands with the Ryukyu archipelago, which was to be returned to Japan under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement.
On Sept 16, 1970, the Republic of China (ROC) - whose Kuomintang government had moved to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to the communists and was recognised by the US until 1979 - issued a four-page aide memoire through its ambassador to the US Chow Shu-kai, objecting to Japanese sovereignty over these islands.
According to declassified US official documents Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), Volume XVII, China, 1969-1972, Document 113, Chow at a meeting with then US President Richard Nixon emphasised that the final disposition of the Senkakus should be kept open.
He emphasised that the US move to bundle them with the Ryukyus "has had violent repercussions" and that "this will get a movement of overseas Chinese". After he left, Nixon remarked that "Chow was correct on the need to consider the political views of overseas Chinese".
On March 15, 1971, the ROC embassy sent a note to the US State Department stressing that the islands belonged to China and should not be returned to Japan.
Following this, National Security Council staff member John Holdridge sent a Memorandum to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, proposing an ambiguous policy that remains to this day.
According to FRUS Document 115, Holdridge said: "State's position is that in occupying the Ryukyus and the Senkakus in 1945, and in proposing to return them to Japan in 1972, the US passes no judgment as to conflicting claims over any portion of them, which should be settled directly by the parties concerned."
The document added that Kissinger's handwritten comment in the margin read: "But that is nonsense since it gives islands to Japan. How can we get a more neutral position?" Clearly, at the initial stage, the US saw the inherent inconsistency of the policy.
And it did not go unchallenged. In June 1971, president Nixon's Assistant for International Economic Affairs Peter Peterson sent a note to Nixon outlining dissent by David Kennedy, the envoy responsible for negotiation with Japan on textile issues.
According to FRUS document 133, Kennedy argued: "This (the Senkakus) is a major issue in Taiwan with both domestic and international implications. If the US were to maintain administrative control, it would give the GRC (Government of the Republic of China) a tremendous public boost since they have expressed themselves so forcefully on the issues."
What is more important is his view against a policy of appeasement towards Japan: "In addition, such an act would... provide a very badly needed shock effect on the Japanese. It would indicate that US acquiescence in all matters requested by the Japanese could no longer be taken for granted."
Admitting that such a suggestion would raise opposition at home, Kennedy continued to defend his view: "We accepted stewardship of these Islands after World War II. Neither historically nor geographically are they a part of the Ryukyus Chain containing Okinawa...
"Since possession of the Islands is still in dispute, there is every reason for the US to maintain administrative control until ... the dispute is settled...
"By no means am I suggesting that we hand the islands over to Taiwan. Rather, I am strongly recommending the wisdom of preserving the status quo rather than allowing Japan to assume administrative control."
According to FRUS Document 134, Peterson replied to Kennedy on June 8, 1971, saying: "After lengthy discussion, the President's decision on the Islands is that the deal has gone too far and too many commitments made to back off now."
The same document quoted Kissinger as explaining the US decision thus: "The principle that we are applying is that we receive the islands from Japan for administration and are returning them to Japan without prejudice to the rights - no position between the two governments on it."
Document 134 also recorded what followed: "On June 7 Kennedy told (ROC Vice-Premier) Chiang Ching-Kuo of the decision on the Senkaku Islands. Chiang asked that the US Government categorically state at the time of the signing of the Okinawa reversion agreement that the final status of the islands had not been determined and should be settled by all parties involved."
The US agreed to issue a statement by the State Department on June 17 saying that "a return of 'administrative rights' to Japan of the Senkaku Islands can in no way prejudice the underlying claims of the Republic of China".
At the same time, it "strongly urged" Japan to discuss the issue with Taiwan "prior to signature of Okinawa Agreement on June 17". However, on July 12, vice-premier Chiang complained to the US that "the Japanese so far have refused to talk in any meaningful way on the subject".
Thus, the US in fact was practising a policy of appeasement towards Japan that ambassador Kennedy strongly advised against.
The US should take note of the fact that, in its entire history, Japan is the only Asian country that had declared war on it and brought war to US soil.
Condoning Japanese acquisition of the disputed islands would in the long run backfire on the US, in much the same way it did in 1931, when Japan took possession of China's Manchuria. After the incident, US secretary of state Henry Stimson said the US should give Japan a chance to control the situation without facing external threat or public criticism.
The West's acquiescence over Japan's move at the time led to Tokyo's expansion of war from North-east Asia to the Pacific.