During the past weeks, the tensions surrounding the Senkaku Islands [Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台)] have risen significantly. China has continued to send patrol ships into the area, often getting close to, or crossing over, the 12 nautical mile (22km) line marking the territorial waters surrounding the islands. Last month, China also sent a surveillance aircraft into the area, prompting Japan — which also claims the islands, and calls them the Senkakus — to scramble F-15s.
The escalation comes right after both Japan and China have gone through a leadership transition: Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) was appointed general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November last year, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party won elections in December.
It is disheartening that in his first major foreign policy speech, given earlier this week to the CCP’s politburo, Xi was highly assertive on China’s claims, saying: “No foreign country should ever nurse hopes that we will bargain over our core national interests.”
The way the term “core interests” has been used by Beijing reflects a rigid position: It has covered the harsh crackdowns in Tibet and East Turkestan as well as its inflexibility on Taiwan. While gradually pushing Taiwan into its unwelcome economic embrace, it has refused to take down and dismantle the 1,600 missiles aimed at Taiwan, thus maintaining the means to coerce the nation into submission.
China’s increasing belligerence on the Senkaku issue has led the administration of US President Barack Obama to lean heavily on China and Japan. In mid-January, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell led a heavyweight delegation to Tokyo and Beijing, urging cooler heads to prevail. A few days later, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida standing beside her — stated that the Obama administration opposed “any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration” of the islands — a clear reference to China.
As the US clearly has its hands full trying to keep the situation under control, it would behoove Taiwan [which also claims the Diaoyutais] to try to calm the waters and not rock the boat. That is why it was so utterly incomprehensible that on Jan. 24, Taiwan allowed a fishing boat with activists to sail to the islands.
According to press reports, this fishing boat was accompanied by four Taiwanese coast guard vessels, resulting in a standoff with Japan Coast Guard vessels, which then led to a replay of the water cannon fight that occurred at the end of September last year.
It must be emphasized that this is not responsible policy. These kinds of provocative actions are not helpful, and damage Taiwan’s interests in the region and its relations with the US. It estranges Taiwan from its democratic neighbors and undermines the nation’s image in Washington: It needs to be seen as playing a constructive role, not stirring up trouble.
As I have stated before, it is essential that Taiwan remains on good terms with the democracies in the region, the US, Japan and South Korea. That in itself will help safeguard its existence as a free and democratic nation. China is not democratic, and thus, appearing to move in line with Beijing’s position and against Japan’s will undermine freedom and democracy in Taiwan.
Nat Bellocchi served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1990 through 1995. The views expressed in this article are his own.