On Aug. 16, a Russian patrol boat fired at a Japanese fishing boat and killed a Japanese fisherman in the disputed waters off Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, leading to another diplomatic conflict over the territory between Russia and Japan.
Meanwhile, five members of a Taiwanese alliance for the protection of the sovereignty of the Diaoyutai Islands departed from Taipei County for the disputed island group as a protest against Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's controversial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine the day before. Their boat was expelled by the Japanese coast guard.
Other sovereignty disputes in East Asia include Japan and South Korea's dispute over Takeshima Island and the conflict between Singapore and Malaysia over the Padra Branca Islands.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea clearly states that a coastal country can claim a 200 nautical-mile (370km) "exclusive economic zone." Since this is crucial to a nation's resources and rights, international conflicts are frequent. Strong maritime nations usually adopt the method of "practical occupation, effective management" to assert control. Japan's projection of its sovereignty over the Diaoyutai is backed by the public, and has universal support within the Japanese government.
By comparison, Taiwan divided the East China Sea into five areas for oil and gas investigation in the 1960s, and claimed the sea territory surrounding the Diaoyutai in 1998, but no effort has been made regarding either sovereignty protection or resource exploration.
What legal or scientific basis should Taiwan build its sovereignty discourse on, and what kinds of long-term scientific investigation need to be implemented? Taiwan does not pay any attention to these questions, and fails to integrate opinions from all the related fields. Naturally, such a passive attitude makes it difficult for Taiwan to create a favorable situation in the South China Sea and on the Diaoyutai issue.
More attention should be given to the way Taiwan's outlying islands have been abused lately. Well known examples are the sudden construction of a harbor and meaningless hiking pathways on Orchid Island with its unique marine life. To boost the tourism industry, thousands of motorcycles for round-the-island tours are now running across Green Island, which used to be beautiful and quiet. Some rare bays, wetlands, and coastal areas on Kinmen and Matsu have also been destroyed due to various construction projects.
Other thorny issues include the occupation by Chinese fishermen of uninhabited islands off Penghu, and the difficult management and repatriation of these fishermen. The discovery of ancient pottery in Makung Harbor also highlights the new issue of exploration and protection of underwater cultural assets. This is not only a matter of sovereignty but also long-term planning and sustainable management.
Islands are considered precious assets. They receive much attention because of their sensitive ecological situation, fragile environment, and unique cultural and scenic resources. For example, the untouched and rich resources on the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador in South America provided the impetus for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
As a result of global warming and the tsunamis in South Asia, the UN has established a Small Island Developing States network to promote sustainable island development. The UN's Environment Program has set up a Web site dealing with the protection and conservation of islands, calling in several island forums on the world's island states to pay attention to rising sea levels and the prevention and handling of sea disasters. The UN also organized the Third Global Conference on Oceans, Coasts and Islands in Paris in late January.