President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) recent series of absurd activities in relation to the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) issue are as sudden and unexpected as they are farcical.
First, he played with fire when he allowed Coast Guard Administration vessels to escort Taiwanese vessels flying the Chinese national flag to the Diaoyutais in July.
After that, the Republic of China (ROC) flag appeared on the islands in a joint action with Hong Kong activists. On the one hand, the government tried to distance itself from the action, saying it had played no part in it, while on the other, it issued a public statement saying that the ROC flag being flown on islands which had been “stolen” and occupied by Japan was in line with the government’s position. Ma is handling matters of national importance by avoiding issues and trying to hide his involvement.
In an interview with the Japanese national broadcaster NHK on Aug. 20, Ma surprised everyone by saying he wanted to launch an “initiative” to submit the Diaoyutai issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to find a resolution.
According to the Statute of the ICJ, the court’s jurisdiction only extends to special agreements between parties to the statute, to issues explicitly stipulated in other international agreements, or to issues on which parties to the statute have agreed to accept the court’s jurisdiction in relation to any other state accepting the same obligation — this is the so-called “optional compulsory jurisdiction” clause in Article 36 of the statute.
According to the UN Charter, only UN members can become parties to the statute. Non-UN members shall be recommended by the UN Security Council and approved by the General Assembly to become parties to the statute.
In other words, submitting the Diaoyutai sovereignty issue to the ICJ requires a special agreement between China and Japan. Taiwan will not even be allowed in as an observer. Ma’s suggestion, then, is an evisceration of Taiwan’s sovereignty. Is he perhaps helping China by trying to sound out the Japanese? The reason I am asking is that on July 10, an article included in the e-mail newsletter from Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun quoted government sources as saying that the Japanese government will not consider submitting the case to a UN agency for resolution because asking the ICJ to resolve the issue would be tantamount to Japan recognizing that there is a dispute over these islands, which is what China wants. The article also said that even if China were to submit the case to the court, Japan will not dance to China’s tune. There is a reason for Ma’s statement, but one can only guess at his intentions.
On Sept. 7, Ma traveled to Pengjia Islet (彭佳嶼) to view the Diaoyutais from a great distance. There is of course nothing wrong with the nation’s leader inspecting national territory, but how can he claim that such childish games constitute a “clever declaration of sovereignty”? Ma’s choice of Pengjia as a place to make a declaration of sovereignty makes it clear that Taiwan does not exercise effective control over the Diaoyutais as required by international law. That raises doubts over Taiwan’s qualifications to claim sovereignty over the islands, yet he revels in the illusion that three sets of bilateral talks to be followed by one set of trilateral talks will help raise Taiwan’s international profile.
Leaving China’s reaction aside, Japan’s foreign minister rejected Ma’s “East China Sea peace initiative” as early as Aug. 7, in what was effectively a slap in the face for Ma.
After Ma landed on Pengjia and announced his program, the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun said the only reason Ma continued to issue statements regarding the Diaoyutais issue was that he wants to feel that Taiwan remains part of the East China Sea issue. Japanese authorities have always rejected the view that there is a dispute, and Ma will not succeed in drawing a Japanese response.
This being the case, Ma should know when to step back. Neither Japan nor China will sit down with him to discuss setting aside the East China Sea sovereignty dispute for the sake of joint development of the region. The handling of international affairs is an art form that requires both wisdom and realism. Ma should approach the issue cautiously and with an open mind.
Chen Rong-jye is a legal academic and former secretary-general of the Straits Exchange Foundation.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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