Over the past few days, Taiwan’s media have been abuzz with news and comment about a Hong Kong-based boat that landed on the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) on Wednesday last week.
The options available to China and Taiwan for advocating their territorial claims over the islands can be divided into three levels. The lowest level is to send verbal messages, declaring the nation’s sovereignty over the Diaoyutais through foreign ministry statements. The second level is to take concrete measures, such as sending government vessels to escort boats and people belonging to our side, so as to protect them from being arrested or otherwise interfered with by the Japanese authorities. The highest and riskiest level is to resort to military force, which would lead to a naval confrontation between the two sides.
At present, Taiwan has at least gone to the level of taking concrete action. A Taiwan-based fishing boat carrying Diaoyutais sovereignty activists that approached the islands on July 4 was only able to safely reach waters adjacent to the Diaoyutais and complete its protest action because the Taiwan government dispatched coast guard patrol boats to escort it.
But what about China? It has not gone beyond the stage of speaking out.
Given that Taiwan has used government authority to protect boats on their way to engage in protests at the Diaoyutai Islands, Hong Kong-based Diaoyutais activists want China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to do the same. This demand has garnered a strong response on Chinese Web sites, with most visitors expressing disappointment, and even saying that is better to ask Taiwan’s armed forces for protection than the PLA. Evidently, the government’s decision to dispatch coast guard vessels to escort boats carrying protestors to the Diaoyutais has caused the Chinese authorities to come under a great deal of pressure from people in China.
Although recent incidents have led to tense standoffs between Taiwanese and Japanese coast guard vessels, these scenes did not entail any real danger. That is because the two sides approach one another with considerable restraint, each knowing where the other side draws its bottom line and what it wants. Taiwan’s position is quite simple. It just wants to ensure the safety of Taiwanese fishermen, not to pick a fight, because it will have to account to the Taiwanese public for whatever happens. Japan, for its part, must also be seen to at least try to obstruct any protest actions, otherwise rightwing elements in Japan would not let their government off the hook. All Japan has done in response to Taiwan’s sending of coast guard vessels to escort fishing boats is to postpone a visit to Japan by Coast Guard Administration Minister Wang Ginn-wang (王進旺). It has not elevated the issue to the level of a political incident.
The foremost reason for the unspoken agreement that exists between Taiwan and Japan is that Taiwanese take a fairly rational approach to the Diaoyutais sovereignty movement, so it is not likely to set off nationalistic and radical actions. Besides, there is a lot of interaction between Taiwan and Japan. Numerous public opinion polls have shown that Japan is the favorite foreign country of Taiwanese. When the Tohoku Earthquake struck Japan last year, Taiwanese donated more money than any other nation. Taiwanese and Japanese people have considerable faith in one another, and Taiwan and Japan are also both links in the current US strategy of containing China.