As the dispute over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkakus to Japan — between Japan and China leads to worsening tensions in the region, an important question is: Which side is Taiwan on?
On the one hand, we have seen President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) East China Sea peace initiative, which was proposed on Aug. 5 during his visit to Pengjia Islet (彭佳嶼). The initiative calls for “peaceful dialogue and mutually reciprocal negotiations,” and for “sharing resources and cooperative development.”
However, on the other hand, we have seen actions from Taiwan’s side that contribute to mounting tensions: Allowing a fleet of more than 40 fishing boats to sail to the Diaoyutais to strengthen Taipei’s “sovereignty” claim, while sending along a dozen coast guard vessels to “protect” them is simply unhelpful and only contributes to an increase in tensions.
Such moves certainly do not help the fishermen gain further fishing rights.
One could even argue that because of these confrontational moves, the Japanese are less likely to grant additional fishing rights around the islands to fishing boats from Taiwan.
In any case, Taiwanese fishermen already have the right to fish outside the 19km coastal zone under an agreement reached between Japan and the previous Democratic Progressive Party administration.
However, an even more important issue is the perception of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government siding with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the issue of the island group.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued statement after statement and Ma himself condemning Japan for its purchase of three of the islets from a private Japanese owner, although it was clear that the motivation of the Japanese government was to calm things down by preventing the nationalist governor of Tokyo from purchasing the islands.
The past week has also seen a significant increase in the number of statements from the Chinese praising the Ma government for its actions.
The PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office chirped: “The two sides of the [Taiwan] Strait are one family. Brothers, even if they argue at home, should stand united against aggression from outside.”
On Friday, the PRC went so far as to place a huge advertisement in both the Washington Post and the New York Times titled “Diaoyu islands belong to China.”
The advertisement included a map conveniently portraying “Taiwan Island” as part of China. We have seen nary a word of protest from Taipei on this attack on its sovereignty.
So the question becomes very much: Which side is the Ma administration on?
Is it siding with China and increasingly letting Taiwan drift into the grasp of an undemocratic and authoritarian regime in Beijing?
Or does it want to come down on the right side of history?
As a member of the Taiwanese-American community, I would like to see Taiwan come down on the side of those countries that adhere to the same basic principles and values that are dear to us in this country: freedom and democracy.
Japan is a major power in the region that is free and democratic. It did not provoke the present conflict.
It is clear that China did by whipping up nationalistic sentiments against Japan and its citizens.
Taiwan and its government would do well to keep a safe distance from China and maintain good relations with its democratic neighbors.
Mei-chin Chen is a Washington-based commentator