In a symbolic and political move aimed at asserting the nation’s sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) visited the Pengjia Islet (彭佳嶼) on Friday and laid out the details of his East China Sea peace initiative on the closest islet to the Diaoyutais. His proposal for a trilateral dialogue between Taiwan, Japan and China to shelve their differences and jointly develop the resources in the Diaoyutais is a good one in theory, and aims to prevent Taiwan from being marginalized in the fight for the islands’ sovereignty.
The problem is that Taiwan does not have the clout to entice China and Japan to the negotiating table. The initiative has also strayed from the government’s long-term stance of not teaming up with China in defense of its sovereignty over the contested island chain. The Ma administration has argued that the Diaoyutais are an integral part of the Republic of China’s (ROC) territory. Beijing also claims sovereignty over the Diaoyutais as part of its territory.
If Taiwan and China initiated a bilateral dialogue on the Diaoyutais as suggested by Ma, the two sides would actually enter political negotiations as the issue of national sovereignty must be addressed, and the “one China” principle will be put to test. By recognizing the recent display of the ROC national flag by pro-China activists on the islands and by proposing bilateral talks between Taiwan and China to cooperate on the issue of the Diaoyutais, the Ma administration could risk jeopardizing the nation’s sovereignty.
As tensions between the three competing countries escalate, the trilateral dialogue proposal — which Ma said could be achieved through “three-sided bilateral talks” first — may strengthen Taiwan’s role in the extravaganza, but as the government tries to avoid the risk of marginalization amid the competition, it should be cautious about Beijing taking advantage of nationalist sentiment.
It is notable that as the dispute over the Diaoyutais continues, the annual APEC forum was held in Russia last week. Both China and Japan used the occasion to claim sovereignty over the islands. In a press conference to sum up the annual forum, Japan insisted on its plan to nationalize the Diaoyutais, known as the Senkakus in Japan, and said it will continue with the plan to purchase three islands of the island chain from private owners in order to “maintain regional stability and peace.” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) later reaffirmed Beijing’s hard-line stance against Japan over rival claims to the Diaoyutais, and said it is the responsibility of people across the Taiwan Strait to defend the islands’ sovereignty because the Diaoyutais are an integral part of China’s territory.
Amid the war of words between China and Japan, Taiwan is largely ignored. The Japanese government has said that it has learned the about the East China Sea peace initiative, but does not yet have a response. The issue was also not on the agenda during the meeting of Taiwan’s APEC envoy, former vice president Lien Chan (連戰), and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) on the sidelines of the forum. During the meeting, Hu stressed the importance for Taiwan and China to uphold the “one China” principle especially when handling major issues.
Hu’s remarks serve as yet another reminder that China would continue to interfere in Taiwan’s international affairs and control the nation’s international participation under the “one China” principle, which for Beijing, means the People’s Republic of China.