Over the past few days, Taiwan’s media have been abuzz with news and comment about a Hong Kong-based boat that landed on the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) on Wednesday last week.
The options available to China and Taiwan for advocating their territorial claims over the islands can be divided into three levels. The lowest level is to send verbal messages, declaring the nation’s sovereignty over the Diaoyutais through foreign ministry statements. The second level is to take concrete measures, such as sending government vessels to escort boats and people belonging to our side, so as to protect them from being arrested or otherwise interfered with by the Japanese authorities. The highest and riskiest level is to resort to military force, which would lead to a naval confrontation between the two sides.
At present, Taiwan has at least gone to the level of taking concrete action. A Taiwan-based fishing boat carrying Diaoyutais sovereignty activists that approached the islands on July 4 was only able to safely reach waters adjacent to the Diaoyutais and complete its protest action because the Taiwan government dispatched coast guard patrol boats to escort it.
But what about China? It has not gone beyond the stage of speaking out.
Given that Taiwan has used government authority to protect boats on their way to engage in protests at the Diaoyutai Islands, Hong Kong-based Diaoyutais activists want China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to do the same. This demand has garnered a strong response on Chinese Web sites, with most visitors expressing disappointment, and even saying that is better to ask Taiwan’s armed forces for protection than the PLA. Evidently, the government’s decision to dispatch coast guard vessels to escort boats carrying protestors to the Diaoyutais has caused the Chinese authorities to come under a great deal of pressure from people in China.
Although recent incidents have led to tense standoffs between Taiwanese and Japanese coast guard vessels, these scenes did not entail any real danger. That is because the two sides approach one another with considerable restraint, each knowing where the other side draws its bottom line and what it wants. Taiwan’s position is quite simple. It just wants to ensure the safety of Taiwanese fishermen, not to pick a fight, because it will have to account to the Taiwanese public for whatever happens. Japan, for its part, must also be seen to at least try to obstruct any protest actions, otherwise rightwing elements in Japan would not let their government off the hook. All Japan has done in response to Taiwan’s sending of coast guard vessels to escort fishing boats is to postpone a visit to Japan by Coast Guard Administration Minister Wang Ginn-wang (王進旺). It has not elevated the issue to the level of a political incident.
The foremost reason for the unspoken agreement that exists between Taiwan and Japan is that Taiwanese take a fairly rational approach to the Diaoyutais sovereignty movement, so it is not likely to set off nationalistic and radical actions. Besides, there is a lot of interaction between Taiwan and Japan. Numerous public opinion polls have shown that Japan is the favorite foreign country of Taiwanese. When the Tohoku Earthquake struck Japan last year, Taiwanese donated more money than any other nation. Taiwanese and Japanese people have considerable faith in one another, and Taiwan and Japan are also both links in the current US strategy of containing China.
The situation in China is quite the opposite. The Chinese government’s cool approach stands in sharp contrast with heated public opinion, highlighting the quandary in which the government finds itself over the Diaoyutais issue. Influenced by longstanding anti-Japanese education, there is a strong atmosphere of anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese. As a result, whenever there is any slight friction between the two countries, it can set off an intense anti-Japanese movement among ordinary people. This popular pressure makes it hard for the Chinese government so step back, for fear of getting bitten by the fierce nationalism it has fostered.
If the Chinese government does not send PLA Navy ships to protect boats carrying protesters to the Diaoyutais, it risks being called weak and incompetent. On the other hand, if it really sent its navy to intervene, given the weak foundation of mutual trust between China and Japan, a small clash could easily lead to a major confrontation. Furthermore, once something happens to spark Chinese nationalistic ire, it can be hard to extinguish. If such a turn of events were to happen now, as the Chinese Communist Party prepares to hold its 18th National Congress, it would be sure to cause major political twists and turns.
As a small country squeezed between the US, Chinese and Japanese spheres of influence, Taiwan must handle the Diaoyutai Islands issue pragmatically, being neither haughty nor overly humble. It is no easy task. Any movement advocating Taiwan’s ownership of the Diaoyutais will have to use smart power, not Boxer Rebellion-style populism.
Although the Hong Kong-based Diaoyutais protesters gained some emotional release when they landed on the islands last week, they also caused heightened tensions between China and Japan. Their action has whittled mutual trust between China and Japan down to nothing, and it has given a stimulus to rightwing forces in Japan, forcing the Japanese government to make a tough response.
Apart from contributing nothing to a resolution of the Diaoyutai Islands issue, the recent protests will make it hard to celebrate the approaching 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Japan, and they pose a considerable challenge to relations between the two countries in the foreseeable future.
Fan Shih-ping is a professor in the Graduate Institute of Political Science at National Taiwan Normal University.
Translated by Julian Clegg