EDITORIAL: Preconceptions over the Diaoyutais

Wed, Oct 03, 2012 - Page 8

For once, Taiwan has behaved like an independent country in its response to the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) dispute, and yet critics argue that by doing so the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is actually doing Beijing’s work.

The irony is hard to miss, but this is exactly what some supporters of Taiwanese independence have been saying. Even though Taipei’s recent actions over the islets may have gone against the wishes of its benefactor in Washington, one cannot advocate for Taiwanese independence only to attack the government when it acts to protect its perceived interests, even if one disagrees with the policy.

Unfortunately, the groups in question suffer from a bad case of “groupthink” and remain fixated on an idea — the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as irremediably bad — while conveniently discarding whatever information does not fit their preconceptions.

There is a body of evidence, some of it reported in the media and some garnered through interaction with the various protagonists involved in the dispute, that clearly shows that the Ma administration is neither doing Beijing’s work nor siding with it against Tokyo. Senior administration officials from the foreign affairs and defense ministries, as well as the coast guard, have denied the possibility of such cooperation on several occasions.

As if that were not enough, senior and influential members of the KMT have pointed out, on the record and in no uncertain terms, that they will have nothing to do with the tiny minority of people who support unification or a cross-strait alliance against Japan.

The main participants — the fishermen — have also made it clear that their livelihood, not politics, is behind their protests. Several of them told this much to local and foreign reporters who bothered to ask.

Furthermore, if one can be bothered to look it up, both KMT and Democratic Progressive Party officials at the local level have expressed their support for the fishermen’s actions, also emphasizing that fishing rights, not mindless nationalism nor a desire to work with Beijing, was what motivated them to take action.

Despite what Ma’s critics might think, his government is not a monolithic entity, so even if he uses the language of nationalism, what drives policy is actually far more complex.

However, all this information has failed to disabuse a small group of advocates of the notion that Ma is engaged in some dark conspiracy with his “political masters” in Beijing. Those people also conveniently ignore the 2005 high-profile visit to Pengjia Islet (彭佳嶼) by then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), during which he observed the Diaoyutais through a pair of binoculars to symbolize Taiwan’s claims and unveiled a “bulwark of maritime territory” stone tablet.

Were those people only passive observers, their lack of understanding of this complex situation would be of little consequence, but that is not the case — some of them work for organizations that have a modicum of influence on Capitol Hill and their picture does not resonate with reality.

Feeding inaccurate information to representatives will not help Taiwan or the independence movement. In fact, their perspective on the Diaoyutais dispute, and their portrayal of Ma as a Beijing pawn, does Taiwan a major disservice by making it likelier that US officials will recommend abandoning its ally. As one of the three claimants, Taiwan has a right to exercise its sovereignty, even if the US does not like it.

An even greater irony, of course, is that their argument regurgitates Chinese propaganda on the dispute, which seeks to create the illusion that Taiwan and China are united in the “defense” of the islets.

If there is one thing that Taiwan independence supporters should have learned over the years it is that they should not believe Chinese propaganda, and yet they seem to give credence to propagandists over the Taiwanese officials from an elected government.