China has adjusted its policy on the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, since the Japanese government announced its decision to “nationalize” the contested islands last year. Beijing has gone from a passive, indirect approach to a much more active, direct one, and in the process Taiwan has been downgraded from a main actor to a supporting role in the unfolding drama.
Chinese reconnaissance patrols have been traveling within 12 nautical miles (22km) of the islands five or six times a month, and surveillance aircraft have also flown over them.
On two occasions, Chinese Jiangwei-class frigates have directed weapons-related fire-control radar at Japanese vessels, once at a Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) destroyer — the Yuudachi — and once targeting a Japanese military helicopter, giving rise to concerns and protest from Tokyo over what it saw as provocative actions.
China has had to refit a variety of ocean-going vessels, such as ice-breakers or military ships like ocean tugs, survey vessels and electronic reconnaissance ships, as high-tonnage ocean surveillance ships that can patrol the waters around the Diaoyutais just to show that it already has de facto jurisdiction over the area.
This has emboldened Taiwanese fishermen, but the Diaoyutais situation has already made the security issue in the waters to the northeast of Taiwan precarious.
The nation’s coast guard and armed forces have been forced to operate in restricted areas in these waters and are obliged to make regular checks on the position of Chinese vessels and aircraft.
China has been making its sovereignty claims for the Diaoyutais known through a combination of announcements, adverts in international publications and a foreign relations propaganda war, in much the same way as Taiwan and Japan have. It has also submitted to the UN secretary-general maritime maps, territorial sea baselines and base points for the Diaoyutais and affiliated islands along with continental shelf charts extending out 200 nautical miles (370.4km) into sections of the East China Sea to the UN’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, pointing out weak points in Taiwan’s sovereignty claims.
At the same time, it has called on the US to remain neutral over the Diaoyutais issue. For example, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) has expressed the wish that the US will exercise restraint and not interfere in the controversy over sovereignty of the islands, or do anything that could incite conflict.
The US is keen for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to be mindful of the sensitivity of timing and not to further complicate the US-Japanese response to the Diaoyutais issue through his handling of it.
Indeed, Ma has said that he will not ally with China over the Diaoyutais issue, giving three reasons for this: First, because China does not recognize the 1952 Treaty of Taipei between Japan and the Republic of China (ROC), which the ROC is using to support its sovereignty claim. Second, because China has yet to respond to Ma’s East China Sea peace initiative. Last, because China opposes Taiwan-Japan talks involving the sovereignty issue.
His position has not only left Beijing disappointed, showing this will be detrimental to cross- strait mutual political trust, but it has also thrown cold water over the hopes of individuals and sections of the media in Taiwan wanting a joint China-Taiwan response to protect sovereignty over the islands.
Ma would like to have both sides strive to this end separately, but there is no guarantee that this is how things will turn out.
Lin Cheng-yi is a research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of European and American Studies.
Translated by Paul Cooper