It looks as though Taiwan will end up as the major loser in the current phase of the sovereignty dispute over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台). Having originally been one of the parties to the dialogue, Taiwan has gradually been excluded so that it is now little more than a bystander.
On Sept. 7, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) landed on Pengjia Islet (彭佳嶼), where he reiterated Taiwan’s claim to the Diaoyutais, but Ma’s move contributed little in regard to the sovereignty dispute and has also done little to uphold Taiwanese fishermen’s rights to fish near the islands. As to Ma’s suggestion of holding three parallel bilateral dialogues and then moving on to one trilateral dialogue to resolve the Diaoyutai problem, it was not just unhelpful, but could actually be harmful.
Standing on Pengjia Islet and proclaiming sovereignty over the Diaoyutais is useless because times have changed and both the subjective and objective conditions have also changed.
Ma’s moderate approach will not result in Taiwan becoming a party to the dispute. It is true that former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) did the same thing in 2005, but at the time it had the effect of ensuring that Taiwan and Japan would continue to engage in bilateral talks and it also upheld Taiwan’s status as one of the parties to the sovereignty dispute. However, this approach is unlikely to be effective given today’s conditions.
First of all, in 2005, while many Taiwanese were getting worked up over the Diaoytais, Japan did not actually do anything to change what was then the “status quo.”
Therefore, bearing in mind the desire to keep Taiwan-Japan relations on an even keel, there would have been no point in allowing clashes to occur that could have escalated out of control.
So, when Chen visited Pengjia Islet and declared: “The Diaoyutais belong to us, belong to Taiwan, there is no doubt about it,” Taiwan was still a party to the dispute and Japan did nothing to change the “status quo” that prevailed at the time.
The situation today is very different, with Japan having made a series of moves on the issue.
Following Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s suggestion that his municipality could buy some of the islands in the Diaoyutai chain, some members of Japan’s parliament visited the Diaoyutai Islands to proclaim their country’s sovereignty over them and the Japanese parliament passed a motion of censure against Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
On Tuesday, the Japanese Cabinet decided to nationalize the Diaoyutais by buying three of the islands from their private owners. These moves are designed to strengthen Japan’s sovereignty claim over the Diaoyutais and have changed the “status quo” regarding the islands, which means the situation now is different from that of 2005.
The second point is that in the past, Taiwan and Japan dealt with the Diaoyutai Islands issue bilaterally, but now negotiations involve the US, China and Japan. In fact, prior to the current upsurge in the dispute over the Diaoyutais, Taiwan was the only country among those claiming sovereignty over the islands whose fishing boats were operating in nearby waters — or at least within the Temporary Law Enforcement Line (暫訂執法線). No Japanese or Chinese fishing vessels were operating there. Now, however, the situation has markedly changed, with China seeking to have boats operate in the vicinity of the islands. This trend started on Sept. 7, 2010, when the Chinese fishing ship Minjinyu 5879 started trawling in waters close to the Diaoyutais. After the Minjinyu 5879 was apprehended by the Japan Coast Guard and its captain arrested, China dispatched its fishery patrol ship Yuzheng 202 to patrol waters around the islands. Since then, fishery vessels operated by China’s Ministry of Agriculture, patrol boats belonging to China’s State Oceanic Administration and Chinese scientific research vessels have headed into waters around the Diaoyutais again and again. Official vessels of one sort or another have gone to patrol or conduct research in the area on more than 10 occasions since September 2010.