Former US president Harry Truman is credited with having said that it is the duty of the president to tell the public what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. Over the past few months, Taiwan has been engaging in a lot of saber-rattling toward Japan over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台). The government, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the president, has been saying repeatedly that it is a historical fact that Japan has invaded Taiwanese territory and that the nation must fight over every centimeter of land and every rock, and that it would even be prepared to go to war over the issue. However, is this an accurate description of what is really happening?
Historical facts make it clear that ever since the US occupied the Ryukyu Islands, which were put under US trusteeship in 1945, the Diaoyutais have been seen as being part of the Ryukyus. At that time, there was never any talk of the Republic of China government declaring sovereignty over the Diaoyutais. As a matter of fact, the name “Diaoyutai Islands” only became considered the “correct name” for the territory after 1970, following a UN report that there was oil in the region. Before that, the Japanese name “Senkakus” was the one used in Chinese: “Jiange” (尖閣).
When I was studying national geography in high school, the national border was drawn between Taiwan proper and the Jiange Islands, making it clear that the islands belonged to Japan. If they did not belong to Japan, then they belonged to the Ryukyus — which were under US trusteeship. This one point alone makes it clear that there are shortcomings in the current reasoning about the sovereignty of the islands.
Taiwan’s export volume has dropped for six consecutive months, economic performance has fallen continuously for nine months — posting the second-longest “blue-light” period in the nation’s history and placing Taiwan at the tail end of Asian countries in terms of economic growth — youth unemployment is soaring and salaries have dropped to the same level that they were at 17 years ago. Given this situation, focusing on protecting the nation’s sovereignty claims over the Diaoyutais may serve the purpose of diverting attention from the government’s policy failures. However, pleading to patriotic sentiment to remedy the country’s situation and internationalizing domestic conflict are not recommended solutions.
Someone said that even if the Diaoyutais legally belong to Japan, that does not mean that Taiwan cannot stake a claim to the islands because at the very least, they could bring Taiwan some benefits. Perhaps that is true. However, rather than trying to contest the Diaoyutais, which Taiwan long ago marked as being part of Japan on its maps, it would be better if the nation did its utmost to protect its sovereignty in the South China Sea. The islands there, such as the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島), belonged to Taiwan during the Japanese colonial era, when they fell under the jurisdiction of Kaohsiung Prefecture — what is now Greater Kaohsiung. Taiwan has had military forces stationed there for a long time and they cover a much larger sea area and richer resources, including political resources. In short, Taiwan could claim these islands with greater confidence.
It would be better to concentrate on digging out pre-war maps of Vietnam, then a French colony, the US-administered Philippines and Malaysia, then a British colony, to strengthen the legitimacy of Taiwan’s sovereignty claims over islands in the South China Sea. That would be true patriotism and it would bring more benefits to future generations.
Huang Tien-lin is a former presidential adviser.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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