The dispute between Taiwan, China and Japan over the sovereignty of the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known as the Senkakus in Japan, is connected to the international situation, as well as the dignity and well-being of the 1.3 billion people on either side of the Taiwan Strait. Regrettably, historic depth and broad vision has been absent from the debate in Taiwan. Every new incident involving the islands is met with an emotional response and lacks clear direction.
The idea that “the Diaoyutais belong to Taiwan” is unclear and unhelpful in solving the problem.
First, national dignity and rights are not achieved or protected by shouting slogans. If Taiwanese want Tokyo to take note, they could boycott Japanese goods or refuse to visit Japan in an attempt to impact the Japanese economy, which is already in a slump.
Without the moral fortitude to boycott, or the economic strength to restrain Japan, there is little the public can do to protect the Diaoyutais.
When private citizens and politicians say: “The Diaoyutais are ours,” who are they directing this to? Japan or China?
If they are talking to Tokyo, Taiwanese national consciousness might be able to exert some marginal pressure on Japan. However, if they are telling China to stay away from the islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyus (釣魚嶼), this Taiwanese separatist consciousness could be helpful to Japan.
In essence, the Diaoyutais issue is the result of the US handing the administration of the islands to Japan in an attempt to contain China.
If Taiwan and China could work together, the cost of containing China would increase for the US and Japan, and could even cause them to step back from the situation.
If, on the other hand, China and Taiwan fight each other, they would give the US and Japan room to exploit the conflict to their advantage.
As far as Taiwan is concerned, the Diaoyutais issue is inextricably linked to matters of unification and independence.
Those who favor uniting with China recognize that Taiwan cannot defend the Diaoyutais alone and therefore advocate cooperating with Beijing. As they see it, because the islands belong to Taiwan and Taiwan is part of the “Chinese family,” it is only natural for Beijing to support Taipei in its attempts to protect its territory.
Those who support Taiwanese independence, or who think that Taipei should handle the issue on its own, oppose working with China partly because they rely on the US and Japan, and partly because working with Beijing would undermine their rejection of the view that Taiwan belongs to China.
Oddly, these two camps never seem to address the practical issue of how Taiwan can defend the Diaoyutais without China’s cooperation.
Perhaps these people think that if they do not work with China they could induce Japan to open negotiations with Taiwan, with the ultimate goal being not defending Taipei’s claim to the Diaoyutais, but co-opting Japan in resisting China. Former president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) view that the islands belong to Japan is a clear example of this view.
The view that the islands belong to Taiwan is clearly a double-edged sword. How to wield this sword is an issue that needs to be clarified.
The media should not be satisfied with merely reporting on this issue, they should go one step further to explain how the nation should defend its sovereignty over the Diaoyutais.
Lin Ching-yuan is an associate professor in the Economics Department at Tamkang University. Shih Chia-yin is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at Chinese Culture University.
Translated by Perry Svensson