The controversy over the Diaoyutais (釣魚台) has escalated from a territorial dispute to a diplomatic incident involving Taiwan, China and Japan and has seen violent anti-Japanese protests erupting throughout China.
If the governments of these countries do not deal with this situation calmly, it is extremely likely it could develop into a regional conflict that will ultimately benefit no one.
The Diaoyutai controversy is a nationalist extravaganza staged every August. As the curtain rose this year, we saw members of the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, an organization based in Hong Kong — which has neither claim of sovereignty, control nor power over the Diaoyutais — making for the islands. Then Taiwan — which does have a claim (they fall under the jurisdiction of Yilan County), but no control over the islands, emerged stage right, singing of its sovereign rights. Then came Japan — which actually does have control over the islands, which it calls the Senkaku — represented on stage by a fleet of patrol boats pursuing the Hong Kong activists, either arresting them at sea or nabbing them on land. And finally there was China — which has neither sovereignty nor control, but thinks it owns the theater — orchestrating the whole thing from behind the scenes, the grand puppeteer controlling the Hong Kong activists, eventually left having to clean up the mess.
We are treated to a repeat performance every year, although this year things got out of hand courtesy of the “ping-pong effect.” First, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara offered to use public funds to purchase three small islands in the chain from a private Japanese owner and donate them to the Japanese government. This incited the Hong Kong activists to race to the islands, where they made landfall, hoisted Republic of China (ROC) and People’s Republic of China (PRC) flags, and promptly got themselves arrested. This landing, in turn, incited right-wing Japanese to make the trip and plant flags of their own — an action that whipped up anti-Japanese fervor in China, leading to anti-Japanese demonstrations across the country. This nationalist sentiment fed upon itself. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called in the Japanese representative to protest, reiterating Taiwan’s claims of sovereignty over the islands. Beijing also protested to Tokyo, and Japan recalled its ambassador from China.
This year’s extravaganza just so happened to coincide with government elections in some of the countries involved. In Japan, elections for the Diet were under way, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s Cabinet was having to fend off criticism of being soft in his handling of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to another chain of islands, known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan, which both countries claim. Had Tokyo not taken a tougher stance, it would have risked a drubbing. In China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is gearing up for its 18th National Congress, in which there is expected to be a major transfer of power to a new generation of political leaders. The leadership does not want to appear weak at this crucial time, so it knows it has to take a tough stance. The Diaoyutai issue cannot be solved overnight and it may even escalate further.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has suggested that those involved in the East China Sea disputes should put aside their differences and discuss calmly and rationally how all parties could jointly develop the resources there. In principle, the suggestion is a good one, and leaves room for everyone involved to step back from the brink. The trouble is, Taiwan simply does not have the power or the influence to entice China and Japan to the negotiating table. However, if the situation continues to deteriorate and there is no obvious solution in sight, the three sides may well discover that Ma’s suggestion allows a win-win-win situation.