Taiwan sails into East China sea dispute

While Japan and China are the main players in the fight over resource-rich islands, Taiwan has emerged to plant a flag.

An aerial view shows Japan Coast Guard patrol ship spraying water at fishing boats from Taiwan as Taiwan''s Coast Guard vessel sails near the disputed islands in the East China Sea
An aerial view shows Japan Coast Guard patrol ship (bottom L) spraying water at fishing boats from Taiwan [Reuters]

Tokyo, Japan – For those who reduce the dispute over the five islets in the East China Sea to a bilateral spat between a rising China and a declining Japan, last month’s water-cannon battle between the Japan Coast Guard and a huge fleet of Taiwanese fishing boats and patrol vessels came as a surprise.

Three parties are now involved in the dispute over the islands called “Senkaku” by the Japanese, “Diaoyu” in mainland China, and “Diaoyutai” in Taiwan, which makes any possible resolution of the territorial ownership question all that more difficult.

“The Republic of China is a peace-loving nation, but our government will spare no effort to defend our national sovereignty and to safeguard the security of our fishermen. 

– Taiwan President Ma Ying-Jeou

Compared to the Asian giants of the People’s Republic of China and Japan,  the Republic of China – Taiwan – is a much smaller player. But it is also the one geographically closest to the contested zone.

“The Republic of China is a peace-loving nation,” declared Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou last month, “but our government will spare no effort to defend our national sovereignty and to safeguard the security of our fishermen.”

Taiwan jumps in

Taiwan’s approach to this issue has been characterized by a stronger emphasis on dialogue and compromise, as well as a keen concern for fishing rights in particular.

The Taiwanese legal claim to islands overlaps considerably with the position outlined by mainland China.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserts that “historical documents indicate that the Diaoyutai Islands were first discovered, named, and used by the Chinese, and thus incorporated into Chinese territory”. As a result, Japan’s better documented annexation of the islands in 1895 on the basis that they were terra nullius  – land belonging to no one – was false, and in fact constituted “an act of aggression that violates international law”.

Taiwan itself was taken as a Japanese colony for half a century from 1895, but Taipei believes when the Japanese occupation ended in 1945, the Diaoyutai Islands should have been returned as well.

President Ma has attempted to “play the adult” throughout the hot summer of passions over the five tiny islands, proposing his “East China Sea Peace Initiative” on August 5. It was notable, among other things, in its proposal for “sharing resources and cooperative development”, at a time when both Tokyo and Beijing had adopted absolute positions that admitted no compromise.

But it was, perhaps, Ma’s moderation itself that led much of the world to view the conflict as one primarily between Japan and mainland China, with Taiwan confined to a mere asterisk, if it was mentioned at all.

Water cannon diplomacy

Taipei’s unleashing of dozens of fishing boats and maritime patrol vessels to encircle the disputed islands, and then returning water blasts at the larger and more powerful Japan Coast Guard ships, ensured the global media and its viewers would finally understand there are three territorial claimants, not merely two.

Tzong-Ho Bau, vice president of National Taiwan University and one of his nation’s top specialists on regional politics, points out that had Ma simply continued to focus on peace and dialogue without any hint of action, there would be little hope that Tokyo would ever engage in serious negotiations.

Bau also notes a key reason why both Beijing and Taipei responded so vociferously to the Japanese government’s “nationalisation” of three of the five islets is because this act violated a tacit agreement in the region – taking away the sense of ambiguity about the islands’ status – that allowed the issue to remain subdued for decades.

Bau says Tokyo made a serious mistake in raising this issue, not only because it betrayed the friendly feelings that many Taiwanese hold towards Japan, but also because it drives Beijing and Taipei closer to one another in opposition to the status quo of Japanese territorial control.

Although the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China have never really been able to talk openly about the islands, the Japanese nationalisation of the islets and the subsequent maritime confrontations opened the way to such a possibility.

It was Tokyo’s belated appreciation for this fact that led to the most recent developments. Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba released a statement on October 5 praising Ma’s East China Sea Peace Initiative and indicating that Japan agrees with its “spirit”, if not necessarily all of its details.

Almost all political analysts are pessimistic that a full settlement will be reached between Tokyo, Beijing, and Taiwan over the five disputed islets. 

This statement was followed by an indication that Japan is ready to resume talks on a bilateral Japan-Taiwan fishing pact that had been stalled since early 2009, before the Democratic Party of Japan-led government took power.

Historical talks

The talks began in 1996 after the Japan Coast Guard first began taking punitive measures against Taiwanese fisherman found operating in waters near the disputed islands. Negotiations dragged on without conclusion for more than a decade, in spite of Taiwanese anger at what they saw as unjustified harassment of their fishing industry, in waters where they had traditionally sought their catch.

Japan’s conservative Yomiuri newspaper states bluntly that the Japanese government “hopes improving ties with Taiwan will help negate burgeoning cooperation between Beijing and Taipei over the islands” – indicating that Taipei’s gambit in sending its fishing fleet to do battle with water cannon against the Japan Coast Guard achieved its main political objective of forcing Tokyo to take Taiwan more seriously.

Almost all political analysts are pessimistic that a full settlement will be reached between Tokyo, Beijing, and Taiwan over the five disputed islets. At the end of the day, only one state can possess sovereignty over a particular piece of land, and a final apportionment of these territories is bound to offend someone’s nationalist sensibilities.

Nevertheless, to the extent that Taiwan’s more realistic goal has been to return to the pre-1996 state of affairs, in which its fishermen could operate in the rich waters surrounding the islands without Japan Coast Guard harassment, the stage is set for substantial progress to be made.

Source: Al Jazeera