The present flare-up around the Diaoyutais (釣魚台), known in Japan as the Senkakus, is unfortunate, as it could and should have been easily avoided. The problem is that nationalism has stirred up anger, leading to claims of sovereignty that are not supported by historical evidence.
On the Japanese side, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara did not help after he indicated he planned to purchase three of the islands from their private owner to bolster Japanese sovereignty over them. The central government in Tokyo wisely prevented the move by purchasing the islands itself.
Japan has asserted sovereignty over the islands since 1895. After World War II the US controlled them as part of Okinawa, but returned them to Japan as part of the retrocession of Okinawa in 1972.
Officially the US does not take a position on the sovereignty of the Diaoyutais, but does consider them part of territory controlled by Japan, and therefore falling under the Mutual Defense Treaty with Japan.
The purchase of the islands by Japan’s government prompted anti-Japanese protests in China, where Japanese businesses were ransacked, Japanese cars and establishments set on fire, and protesters threw stones and eggs at the Japanese embassy in Beijing. International news media such as the Washington Post reported that these demonstrations could not have occurred without encouragement by the authorities (“Chinese double-game over protests,” Washington Post, Sept. 17).
Thus, the authorities in Beijing undermined China’s own economy, which is already experiencing a serious downturn. One could even argue that the protests again Japan were a way of diverting attention from a sagging economy and disputes surrounding the leadership succession in Beijing.
However, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) weakest point is its claim of “indisputable sovereignty” based on arguments that the islands “have been an inherent territory of China since ancient times.”
If the appearance on old maps is proof of sovereignty, then the appearance of Taiwan on old Portuguese and Dutch maps would be the basis for claims by these countries that Taiwan is rightfully theirs.
By pushing its claims in the East China Sea (and South China Sea) so forcefully, China is creating the impression that it is bent on expansion. The US has emphasized time and again, that these issues need to be resolved peacefully through dialogue and has pushed for a multilateral approach.
However, the question is also, has Taiwan acted wisely in the present context?
Taipei has proposed an East China Sea peace initiative, but has added to the tension by also claiming sovereignty and by allowing 50 or so fishing boats to sail to the islands. It sent along a dozen coast guard vessels to accompany them, setting off a water cannon fight with Japanese coast guard vessels.
By conflating fishing rights with the sovereignty issue, Taipei is regrettably making a muddled situation more complex.
As it is, Taipei’s historical claims are not very strong: Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Republic of China (ROC) did not start claiming the islands until 1971. Maps published by the ROC before that period did not include them in its territory, while in his diaries even Chiang himself referred to the islands as the “Senkakus.”
Instead of deflecting attention onto a few goat-inhabited islands, it might be better for Taipei to directly defend its sovereign rights against China’s assertion in international organizations, such as the UN and the WHO, that it is merely a “province of China.”