Tue, Feb 15, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Set aside Tiaoyutai dispute

While Chinese people enjoyed the Lunar New Year holidays, the Japanese government announced that it would take over management of a lighthouse built by Japanese right-wing youth groups in the Tiaoyutai (釣魚台) island cluster. These moves are aimed at showing the world that Japan has effective sovereignty over the disputed islands in the East China Sea, and they've provoked a storm of controversy.

Japan's announcement that it will take over ownership of the lighthouse is aimed at acquiring oil-resource development rights for the continental shelf in the East China Sea.

Meanwhile, in Taiwan, the Ilan County Government in February last year completed a legally required registration process which assigned the Tiaoyutais as a part of the administrative district of Ilan County's Toucheng township. In 2003, Executive Yuan officials also pointed out that Taiwan and Japan had reached a consensus to "put aside" differences over the Tiaoyutais so they could jointly develop deep-sea fisheries in the area.

Although Taiwan and Japan have no official diplomatic relations, they have a strategic partnership. Taiwan does not want to undermine this partnership because of controversies over who has sovereignty over the Tiaoyutais. Therefore, the foreign ministry's response to Japan's announcement was low-key, saying only that Taiwan hoped that after negotiations between the two countries are held, the Japanese would have a more reasonable attitude.

China, on the other hand, made a clear protest against the move, not least because it wants to protect its interest in the Chunxiao oilfields, where it aims to start production this year. For China, the Tiaoyutai islands are not simply important as a symbol of sovereignty and national dignity, but are also closely tied to its aim to ensure energy supplies in the East China Sea and strategic advantage in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

But as far as the mapping of administrative regions is concerned, the Tiaoyutai islands do not fall under Zhejiang Province, nor are they part of Fujian. China's only recourse in claiming its rights to the island cluster is to say that they belong to Taiwan, and that they are therefore part of the "sacred territories of China." Therefore, in making a fuss over the Tiaoyutai islands, China can kill two birds with one stone: protect its oil interests in the East China Sea and reinforce its claims to "possess" sovereignty over Taiwan.

This move therefore comes as no surprise.

Will the Tiaoyutai controversy escalate military tensions between China, Japan and Taiwan? At present, Japan has only announced that it will manage the lighthouse. As long as the Japanese do not take things any further, then it is likely that the three contending parties will confine this battle to the legal front. But Japan would only need to station troops or colonists on the islands to light the fuse. The combined influences of strategic advantage, racial antipathy and oil politics would then fuel the fire and likely lead to a considerable escalation of tensions -- and even small scale conflict -- making the Tiaoyutais a tinderbox that could destroy the peace in East Asia.

The current Tiaoyutai controversy involves complex issues of historical sovereignty between China, Taiwan and Japan, as well as access to oil in the East China Sea and each country's defenses. It is therefore not something that can be partially resolved through unilateral pronouncements or actions by the parties involved. If China, Japan and Taiwan speak or act without consulting each other, this could have unpredictable results. We would rather the three parties put their differences aside for the moment, and instead of pursuing a zero-sum result, seek a means of jointly developing the area's natural gas and maritime resources to achieve a win-win situation. Only in this way can a multifaceted response to the issue be found that will guarantee regional security and prosperity.

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