Recently, territorial disputes, such as the spat between South Korea and Japan over the Liancourt rocks — known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan — and the stand-off between Taiwan, China and Japan over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known in Japan as the Senkakus — have escalated. Countries surrounding the South China Sea have also been making overtures in relation to islands and shoals that they all claim as their territory.
What all these disputes share in common is that they are all seen from the standpoint of continental peoples, those who view the sea as belonging to the land. The idea is if a country gains control over greater numbers of islands then it can access more of the marine resources they offer. However, it would be better for Taiwan if it started out from the standpoint of a maritime people by proposing the progressive and peaceful notion that islands belong to the sea. Such an approach would be an effective safeguard for Taiwan’s security.
The 2009 ecological film Home contains a speech attributed to Chief Seattle of the native American Suquamish tribe in which he asks: “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?” Fishermen might ask the same question when they lose access and are driven away from what were once common fishing grounds. Vandana Shiva, a leading Indian advocate of farmers’ rights, says that in her experience of working with UN agencies, many social problems to do with the environment and the distribution of resources are defined as much by global powers as they are to do with religious and ethnic conflicts — an interpretation that is favorable to their interests.
Behind a lot of the conflict regarding sovereignty over islands in East Asia lie issues such as oil exploration, fishing rights and access to shipping lanes. Taiwan could apply the traditional wisdom of Austronesian people in terms of working out how to manage East Asia’s natural resources in a sustainable way.
In the worldview of the Tao people of Lanyu, the land belongs to the sea. When you consider that more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by sea, even the largest land mass — Eurasia — is still an island.
Island tribes traditionally share the use of nearby fishing grounds, applying traditional wisdom and taboos to manage time and space. Before Han people on Taiwan began using big mechanized fishing vessels to fish intensely in all seasons, traditional fishermen did not exploit the sea in such a destructive way — the so-called tragedy of the commons — and nobody ever thought of occupying unpopulated islands to claim the fishing grounds that surround them.
Common sense tells us that tides and currents come and go, fish swim wherever they like and the wind blows in all directions, so how can humans sitting on firm, unmoving land grab hold of the naturally flowing world using their hands or machines? Besides, humans are only very recent arrivals on this planet which has been in existence for close to 4.6 billion years.
Just as the Earth is a home for all species, the Diaoyutais should be home to the grass, plants and tiny animals that live on the islands and provide a stopover for migratory birds. At most, they should serve as shelters and rest stops for fishermen. They do not necessarily have to belong to one or another of the surrounding nation states — not even the Ryukyu Kingdom that was annexed long ago.