Recently, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration has been trying to make its case for sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in Washington. They sent former representative Stephen Chen (陳錫蕃), who spoke at a seminar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday. He did not do a very good job.
Chen spun a long and confusing tale, arguing that on the basis of historical records the islands — known as the Senkakus in Japan — were an “inherent part of ROC [Republic of China] territory,” as they had always been a subsidiary of Taiwan. He even argued that on the basis of the Cairo and Potsdam declarations, the islands “should have been returned to the ROC.” Of course, neither the Cairo nor Potsdam declarations make any mention of the islands.
Chen also stated that in 1971 and 1972, the US “made a mistake” in turning the Diaoyutais over to Japan as part of the agreement retroceding the island of Okinawa. The interesting thing is of course, that until 1971, Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) ROC did not claim ownership of the islands when they were administered by the US as part of its trusteeship of the Ryukyu Islands.
A recent study by Academia Sinica even shows that Chiang’s government specifically excluded the Diaoyutais from its territory, as the islands were not shown as part of ROC territory on official government maps until 1971.
Chen’s misstatements prompted the normally pro-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Alan Romberg to distance himself from the Ma government. Romberg stated that allowing 75 fishing boats to sail to the islands and protecting them with coast guard vessels had not helped the case for the Ma government in Washington. He said that the timing of Ma’s “East China Sea peace proposal” was not well received in Washington, adding that the proposal had stirred up passions that put it into the “unhelpful category.”
So, what would be a good way forward for Taiwan in this muddled situation? A number of pointers were given by a third speaker at the seminar, former US deputy assistant secretary of state Randall Schriver. He said that while Taiwan is the smallest of the three claimants, and does not have an internal consensus on the issue, it does have a clear bottom line: its fishing rights.
Schriver emphasized that Taiwan finds itself squeezed between its most important economic partner, China, and its most important security partners, Japan and the US. He implied that it would be wise for Taiwan to attach more importance to its ties with its security partners, and said that while the US had not formally taken a position on the sovereignty of the Diaoyutais, it had strongly emphasized that they fall under the terms of the Japan-US Security Treaty.
Schriver also stated that if the sovereignty case were to be taken to an international forum for settlement, then Japan would have a good chance of winning, as its claims were strong.
Still, he felt that Taiwan could play a role in the peaceful settlement of the issue, if it played its cards right, implying that this would mean coming to an amicable agreement with Japan on the fisheries issue, but not playing up sovereignty claims, where Taiwan’s cards are weaker.
Mei-chin Chen is a Washington-based commentator.