Officially, Taipei attributes the recent breakthrough to the “East China Sea Peace Initiative” and the cordial relationship that the two countries have enjoyed for many years. And in some respects, the new fishing agreement is similar to Taipei’s peace proposal. For instance, both sides still claim sovereignty over the islands. And both sides have agreed to share the fishing rights.
Others have a different interpretation of events. During recent discussions with the author, the president of a prominent think tank in Taipei warned that “Taiwan is Japan’s only friend [in East Asia] and if they think they are losing this friend to China, they will go crazy.” The leaders in Tokyo may not have lost their minds, but some suspect the prospect of Taipei teaming up with Beijing was sufficient cause to push Tokyo into reaching out to Taiwan and softening its approach to the fishing dispute. As Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), former president of the ROC, observed, the “China factor” was the cause of Tokyo’s concession to Taiwan. Numerous Taiwan academics agree with this assessment. With respect to the PRC, it cannot be too pleased with developments.
An op-ed in China’s Global Times complained that Taipei had used Beijing and/or the threat of a united front to wrest concessions from Tokyo. The editorial emphasized that “Taiwan alone cannot compete with Japan.” The Global Times editorial could be correct. But this episode also shows that Beijing needs to approach the cross-strait relationship in a more pragmatic way and adopt some new thinking on the concepts of sovereignty and the political status of the ROC. Recent events show that meaningful cross-strait cooperation on a host of international issues will be difficult — if not impossible — so long as Beijing embraces the archaic policy that insists the government in Taipei does not exist. In fact, it is possible that both Japan and China will now see a need to recalibrate their respective policies toward Taiwan if they hope to enlist its support on significant regional matters.
Dennis Hickey is the director of the Graduate Program in Global Studies and distinguished professor of Political Science at Missouri State University.