Taiwan has adopted a two-pronged approach toward the high-stakes dispute over the Diaoyutai (釣魚台, Senkaku) islands — a handful of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by Taipei, Tokyo and Beijing. On the one hand, it has promoted a diplomatic solution to the quarrel. On the other, it has supported activists who claim that the islands belong to Taiwan and/or China, and might be inching closer to Beijing. In August, 2012, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) proposed an “East China Sea Peace Initiative” calling on all disputants to exercise restraint, shelve controversies, engage in peaceful dialogue and observe international law. He argued that, while sovereignty cannot be divided, natural resources can be shared. Ma suggested that Tokyo, Beijing and Taipei should work together to explore and develop resources in the East China Sea. As a multilateral meeting might prove difficult at the outset, Ma later suggested bilateral discussions first between the three parties (Taipei-Tokyo, Taipei-Beijing and Beijing-Tokyo). He reasoned that this arrangement might be a way to nudge negotiations forward.
In addition to this “soft” approach, Taipei has thrown its support behind activists seeking to land on the contested islands and/or and fish in the area. It has also raised concerns that it might be moving closer to Beijing in an effort to devise and coordinate policies that will pressure Tokyo into making meaningful concessions.
Taiwan’s “East China Sea Peace Initiative,” a measured approach to a complicated dispute, has generated support and praise from the international community. However, the other element in Taiwan’s strategy — particularly its assertive behavior — has not. Analysts have warned Taipei that belligerent behavior in the East China Sea will annoy Washington — Taiwan’s only security partner and most powerful advocate in the global community. At a public event on December 4, 2012, Kurt Campbell, then Assistant Secretary of the US Department of State, confirmed that American officials had communicated to their counterparts in Taipei “the expectation that Taiwan not take steps to provoke misunderstandings or tensions over the Senkaku Islands.” Randy Schriver, a former US State Department official, also warned that “Taiwan should avoid the appearance of collusion [with China] because I believe that would be viewed unfavorably.”
Some Taiwan-based analysts suggest that the US and others need to adopt a more balanced perspective. They suggest that the East China Sea Peace Initiative provided Tokyo with little incentive to negotiate. But high-profile clashes involving Taiwanese and Japanese coast guard vessels demonstrated that Taipei was serious. Such tactics also ensured that the international community and global media would understand that there are three disputants in this quarrel — not just Japan and the PRC. In other words, Taiwan’s assertive behavior helped ensure that its voice will be heard.
Thus far, most observers agree that Taiwan has played a good hand with the bad cards it has been dealt. As the weakest and most vulnerable player in this game, it comes as little surprise that many expected Taipei to be marginalized or even ignored in the complicated territorial dispute. On April 10, 2013, however, Japan made its first-ever concession in the quarrel when it agreed to provide Taiwan’s fishing fleet with the additional use of more than 4,530 square kilometers of contested ocean. This means Taiwanese boats can now operate freely in a 7,400 kilometer area around the Diaoyutai islands (Tokyo still insists that Taiwan’s fleet cannot fish in waters within 12 nautical miles of the islands). The two sides also agreed to establish a bilateral fishing commission to settle other issues related to fishing in the area