On Monday afternoon last week, the Coast Guard Administration (CGA) sent 12 patrol vessels into the waters off the Diaoyutai islands (釣魚台) for what it called a “routine patrol.” Two members of an association aimed at asserting the Republic of China’s (ROC) sovereignty over the Diaoyutais followed in a fishing boat, protected by the coast guard vessels.
Early the next morning, the 12 coast guard boats had a more than four-hour standoff with seven ships of the Japan Coast Guard, after which they escorted the two activists back to Taiwan. If protecting Taiwan’s claims over the Diaoyutais by treating our overall national interests as some kind of child’s game is the only — albeit useless — way the “passionate youth” of yore can think of after reaching the ranks of the “passionate middle-aged,” then it is safe to say that we are now facing the “domino effect” the pan-blue camp hangers-on have been worried about.
Regardless of what was behind this incident, the fact that another dispute over the Diaoyutais has occurred only two months before the November special municipality elections will be the last straw that breaks middle voters’ trust in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). This most recent dispute over the Diaoyutais is completely different to the sinking of a Taiwanese ship in 2008 by a Japanese coast guard vessel in terms of its causes, nature and timing. It is definitely not an issue “that will flare up every now and then” and therefore can be ignored as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had declared.
President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration, which is leaning heavier and heavier toward the deep-blue end of the spectrum, has made a series of consecutive misjudgments and reckless moves on crucial issues lately, thereby managing to involve Taiwan in the territorial dispute between the US, Japan and China. In doing so, the government has further fueled perceptions among the international community that Taipei is currying favor with Beijing. A few days ago, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office even “praised” the move, saying it was in line with the interests of both sides of the Taiwan Strait. This is a major policy mistake by Ma caused by his Sinocentric world view and his lack of international perspective.
The recent problem over the Diaoyutais started on the morning of Sept. 7 when a Chinese fishing boat sailed into the area and was intercepted by a Japanese patrol vessel. As it was being intercepted, the two boats collided and the Chinese vessel and its crewmembers were taken into custody by Japanese authorities. While this was an accident, protests by both China and Japan and the ongoing US-Japan joint military exercises in the background caused the situation to quickly deteriorate. Beijing announced it would postpone talks with Tokyo originally scheduled for the middle of this month on jointly developing oil fields in the East China Sea. There have also been reports of attacks by Chinese nationalists against schools for Japanese nationals in China.
While all this was going on, a group of activists from China, Hong Kong and Macau came to Taiwan to join forces with Taiwanese activist groups and travel together to the Diaoyutais to “protest.” The question of how the Ma administration strikes a balance between protecting Taiwanese sovereignty, consolidating alliances with other nations and securing tangible interests will be a real test of the administration’s governing skills.