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Senkaku Islands Issue: Marking President Ma Ying-jeou’s Initiative

Ogasawara Yoshiyuki, Associate Professor, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (Taiwanese politics)


When Taiwanese fishing boats and patrol boats entered the seas around the Senkaku (Ch. Diaoyutai) Islands, Taiwan appeared to have joined the Japan-China territorial dispute. But Taiwan, like Japan, prizes democracy and freedom, and economic and social exchange between Taiwan and Japan is extensive. Taiwan has made it clear that it does not want the matter to cause a serious rift in its relations with Japan. In fact Taiwan is concerned about a serious clash between Japan and China.

Around the time the major anti-Japan demonstrations were going on in China, I visited Taipei with some research colleagues and met with high-ranking officials of Taiwan. I am convinced that Taiwan does not intend to ally itself with China on the territorial issue, but I was keenly aware of the discontent on the Taiwanese side stemming from the fact that Japan appears to be ignoring Taiwan’s interest in this matter.

In his “East China Sea Peace Initiative,” President Ma Ying-jeou called on the parties involved, saying “national sovereignty cannot be divided. Natural resources, however, can be shared,” and expressed his hope that they would “shelve their disputes . . . [and] resolve disputes through peaceful means.” Since his reelection in January, President Ma has suffered setbacks in his domestic policies and his approval rate is low. He has also been accused of going “soft” on Japan for his response regarding the Senkaku Islands issue. But we should commend President Ma for his call for peace in a situation where he could have taken a hard-line stance.

As part of his Initiative, Ma proposed an outline for pursuing dialogue on fisheries, mining, environmental protection, and maritime safety, advocating bilateral discussions between Japan and Taiwan, China and Taiwan, and Japan and China prior to attempting to hold three-way talks.

What Taiwan really wants from this issue is not control over the Senkaku Islands but profits from fisheries in the region. The Japanese government ought to display its flexibility on the matter and establish closer ties with the Ma administration and leaders in the fisheries industry through the Taipei Office of Interchange Association, Japan’s representative office in Taiwan. The Ma administration recalled Shen Ssu-tsun, Taiwan’s representative to Japan (equivalent to ambassador), to protest Japan’s attempt at nationalization of the Senkaku Islands. I hope Mr. Shen will return to his post quickly and promote Ma’s initiative among Japanese in various circles.

As long as Taiwan’s situation remains unchanged, there is little possibility that China will use armed force to seize the Senkaku Islands. To launch a military campaign at the Senkaku Islands, which is right next door to Taiwan, would likely set off alarms that it is intending to head for Taiwan next. Aggressive Chinese action would blow away the strategy adopted by the Hu Jintao administration of pursuing a policy of “peaceful development of cross-strait relations” aimed at winning over the hearts of Taiwanese. The Chinese leadership appears to have in mind that if it is going to take up arms regarding the Senkaku Islands, it would be after unification with Taiwan or once joint military operations with Taiwan were to become possible.

President Ma takes pride in the improvement of relations with mainland China made possible by shelving the difficult question of sovereignty under the “1992 Consensus” according to which both the ROC and the PRC interpret the meaning of “One China” according to their own criteria. The recent Initiative, too, is aimed at stabilizing a delicate situation by taking advantage of deliberately ambiguous language.

The Japanese government ought to make sure it catches this ball thrown by Taiwan. Not wishing to cause Ma to lose face, China itself is being cautious in its response.

(Originally published in Japanese in the Asahi Shimbun, September. 29, 2012)
(Translation by Lynne E. Riggs)