On Sept. 11, the Japanese government announced a plan to nationalize three islands within the disputed Diaoyutai Island (釣魚台) group, known as the Senkaku Islands in Japanese, under the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT).
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was originally hoping he would be able to use this to protect the country’s territorial waters and score a point against his political rivals at home, but this was perhaps a little ambitious. At the APEC leaders’ summit in Russia just more than a week ago, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) made it abundantly clear that Beijing intended to take a tough stance on the issue.
Noda has been embarrassed for his handling of sovereignty disputes not only over the Diaoyutais, but also over the Liancourt Rocks, known as Dokdo in South Korea, which also claims sovereignty, and Takeshima in Japan. At home, too, he has been accused of prevarication.
There is a saying in the Philippines that goes: “When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful.” The big beasts in this scenario are the US, China and Russia, keeping a watchful eye over their strategic interests in the marginal seas in Northeast Asia. Meanwhile, Japan, whose clout is not that of the elephant, or that of the chicken, but somewhere in between, has found its room to maneuver severely restricted, beset by foes on all sides.
A similar scenario is being played out in the South China Sea, where sovereignty disputes over Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島), Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) and Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑礁) are occurring.
On the surface, these disputes appear to be hens fighting it out over chickenfeed, but it is in fact more like a war being fought by proxy as the big beasts look on, tolerating, supporting and giving guidance from the sidelines.
Traditionally, “sea power theory” has emphasized the strategic importance of occupying marine straits, islands and ports to block others’ maritime pathways and thereby to destroy enemies from beyond one’s own territory.
Later, during the Cold War, the West prioritized the strategy of blockading communist countries. This was where the concept of the first and second island chains in East Asia originated.
Today, relations between China and Taiwan have improved, and the Cold War has been over for many years. Times have changed, and with them the circumstances. The role of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan is especially sensitive and complex, and the ROC is still searching for the best way to define itself.
Whatever the appearances, the ongoing tussle for sea power in the South and East China Seas is actually a strategic game involving world powers. While several of the neighboring Asian countries may make small temporary gains, like hens pecking at seed, they should be on guard against complacency.
For when the elephants start to dance, the chickens will have to get out of their way.
Wei Kuo-yen is a professor in the Department of Geosciences at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Eddy Chang