The recent escalation of tensions regarding territorial claims over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands — reflect the individual calculations of Taiwan, China and Japan. As far as China and Taiwan are concerned, given that they are united in their refusal to accept that Japan has a legitimate claim, their biggest consideration will be the strengthening of peaceful mutual development.
Amid all the saber-rattling between China, Taiwan and Japan, US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns has been traveling back and forth between China and Japan, as well as South Korea, trying to defuse tensions. Unfortunately, it does not look like the issue will be resolved any time soon.
By allowing a fleet of Chinese private vessels and naval ships to enter the waters around the Japanese-owned Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan’s east coast at such a crucial time, China defied the US and Japan’s pretensions to lording it over the Western Pacific.
Taiwan, China and Japan have engaged in a series of bilateral talks on the Diaoyutais issue. Clearly, they are no longer content to remain silent on the matter. That international mechanisms for peaceful settlement, such as the International Court of Justice, have kept their distance during this process is a reflection of the nature of the dispute: It is a clash of regional powers.
As far as Taiwan is concerned, the government’s proposal of the East China Sea peace initiative was a way of reclaiming the initiative in this whole process, to maintain the country’s original fishing rights and to create the right conditions for the peaceful continuation of friendly relations between Taiwan and Japan.
For China, the Diaoyutais issue is about seizing the opportunity to legitimize the expansion of China’s maritime rights in the Western Pacific.
For Japan, it is about reinforcing the US-Japan alliance, and obliging the US to restate its security assurances to Japan in the Western Pacific.
The development of the Diaoyutais issue has been about the respective governments of these countries testing the waters regarding potential power shifts within the overall framework of the Western Pacific. It also brings new political and economic challenges to Taiwan, China and Japan.
First, China is bringing to bear its growing economic clout and its increasingly sophisticated methods to bring other countries in line.
Japan and East Asian countries benefit from trade with China. Whether they are willing to sacrifice a degree of power and influence in the interest of maintaining such benefits will be a crucial factor in how much China will be able to influence the future development of the region.
Second, the cross-strait military mutual trust mechanism that has thus far failed to launch has not been brought any closer by this issue. Taiwan’s military buffer zone is now weaker as a result. Recent developments have done little for Taiwan’s case for deepening relations with China on an equal footing.
Finally, a change in leadership in both China and the US may well be seen before the year is out. How the new leaders view the situation in East Asia will be another factor influencing the outcome.
Both Taiwan and China must develop their own stance on the Diaoyutais issue. They must also take steps, such as setting up offices in each other’s countries, to maintain a stable, harmonious environment. This will present not only challenges, but also opportunities, for continued peaceful development of cross-strait relations.
Chen Hsin-chih is a professor of political science at National Cheng Kung University.
Translated by Paul Cooper