In response to plans by the Japanese government to amend textbooks to describe the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) as its historical territory, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday reasserted the nation’s claim to the islands, known in Japan as the Senkakus.
Tensions surrounding the sovereignty of the islands came to a head in 2012, when the Japanese government bought three of the islands from a private owner. Discussions about the islands have been an annual occurrence since then.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) — when it was in office — and the Democratic Progressive Party government have both asserted sovereignty over the islands. The only notable exception is the position of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), who in 2015 referred to the islands by their Japanese name and called them Japanese territory while meeting with supporters in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture.
“In the past, I have repeatedly said that the Senkaku Islands are part of the territory of Japan, not of Taiwan,” Lee was reported to have said.
Then-Presidential Office spokesperson Charles Chen (陳以信) said that the Diaoyutais have “been the inherent territory of the Republic of China since 1683,” the year in which Taiwan was incorporated into the Qing Dynasty as a prefecture of Fujian Province.
However, despite the major parties consistently asserting Taiwanese claims over the islands, they have also generally approached the issue cautiously to avoid upsetting Japan, which has generally been seen as friendly to Taiwan.
For example, in 2012 then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) denied requests from Chinese activists headed to the Diaoyutais to dock in Taiwan to replenish supplies, with the government at the time saying the decision was made “to avoid the perception” that Taiwan was teaming up with China to defend its sovereignty over the Diaoyutais.
Chinese texts, such as the 15th-century Voyage With a Tail Wind (順風相送) and the 16th-century Record of the Imperial Envoy’s Visit to Ryukyu, refer to the islands as part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which was a tributary of China.
Chinese claims to the islands, and Taiwanese claims by extension, are therefore understandable, but why would the government be so assertive over the Diaoyutais and not over other claims?
Arguing with friendly nations like Japan and the US over the Diaoyutais, while ignoring the nation’s claims to Mongolia, the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) and other disputed territory is confusing. Perhaps the government is motivated by energy resources near the islands, perhaps it wants to extend the nation’s maritime boundary, but more likely it is bound by ingrained public sentiment toward the islands. The US government transferred control of the Diaoyutais along with the rest of the Ryukyu Islands to Japan in the 1970s, assuring Taiwan at the time that the transfer did not touch on the issue of sovereignty.
The US also assured Japan that it would take responsibility for the defense of Japanese territory, including the Ryukyu Islands — a promise that then-US secretary of state Rex Tillerson reiterated in August last year.
Sovereignty claims over the Diaoyutais by Taiwan or China can therefore only be symbolic gestures at best. Yet, public sentiment aside, why make symbolic gestures that are unproductive and that could harm relations with friendly states?
While it is unnecessary to rescind the nation’s claims over the Diaoyutais, it is also senseless to incessantly assert those claims, unnecessarily rousing public animosity.
Like all unrealistic territorial claims, claims over the Diaoyutais are best left to history while the nation patiently awaits constitutional reform.
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