Prior to 1968, China had no opinion about who held sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台). In 1968, the UN announced that there were rich oil and natural gas deposits in the waters surrounding the islands, setting off a movement in Taiwan to protect Republic of China (ROC) sovereignty over the islands. However, China still showed no particular interest.
In 1972, then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) told then-Japanese prime minister Kakuei Tanaka that they “should stop talking about the islands. They can’t be found on a map and oil is the only reason there is a dispute.”
When Chinese fishing boats moved close to the Diaoyutais in 1978, then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) told then-Japananese foreign minister Sunao Sonoda that he guaranteed that “this kind of thing will not happen again.”
This was China’s past attitude.
Today, relations between China and Japan are so tense that British magazine The Economist and the US daily the New York Times have published articles warning that the current situation is similar to that in Europe prior to World War I.
China and Japan are big world powers and they want to play according to big power rules, suggesting that they will remain in deadlock and a breakthrough may be impossible.
However, if a broader view of the situation is taken, considering the East China Sea standoff and the conflict between China and other countries in the South China Sea, it no longer looks static.
The clash between China and the other countries bordering the South China Sea is not deadlocked. On the contrary.
A post published on a Chinese Web site titled “After Liberation, China has been constantly expanding its borders in the South China Sea,” said that “for 62 years, the government in Beijing has been expanding its borders through the use of military force and has gradually progressed. The first move for expansion was in 1950, when it took control of the eastern part of the Paracel Islands, (Xisha Islands 西沙群島), wresting them from the hands of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). The second move was in 1974, when it won control of the western part of the Paracel Islands. The third move was in 1988, when it occupied shoals and islands in the South China sea, and the fourth was the military standoff it had with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island 黃岩島) last year. Constant expansion.”
The important thing here is that China’s expansion is not just about resources, it is about realizing its goal of becoming a significant maritime power.
During the 1980s, Liu Huaqing (劉華清) — often compared to Alfred Mahan, a 19th-century US Navy flag officer and geostrategist whose concept of “sea power” was based on the idea that the greater a country’s naval power, the greater its global impact — proposed a three-step long-term vision for the Chinese navy.
According to this, China would gain control of the first group of islands — those along the Asian mainland — by the early 21st century. By 2020, it would control the second group of islands, expanding its control from the first group to islands in the northern Pacific, and by 2050 it would be able to “move freely across the globe.”
China’s maritime expansion since World War II has followed the timing in Liu’s vision. It is now the 2010s, and as China is about to take the next step to the second group of islands, tensions are occurring around the Diaoyutais and the Scarborough Shoal, which are on the fringe of the second group of islands.
Experts stress the strategic importance of the Diaoyutais.
For example, they are located at the center of the first group of islands and if Taiwan gains control over them, it can use them as a shield and deploy a defense against invasion by enemies into its northern parts.
If Japan gains control over the Diaoyutais, it can use them to control Taiwan and as a base to implement a strategic expansion southward, greatly expanding its defensive reach, and its ability to monitor northern Taiwan, a large swath of China’s coastal region and the important shipping lanes in the waters around the Taiwan Strait.
These actions appear to follow another of Mahan’s ideas about maritime power: To become a maritime power, it is necessary to occupy a centrally located island.
However, this is not so: In addition to location, the island must offer enough strength and resources to become a fleet base. Without this it could easily be attacked and difficult to defend, and instead turn into a heavy strategic and tactical burden.
This is something that the Chinese military understands. So why are they so interested in the Diaoyutais?
It is not just the issue of morale and marine resources; China has other, ulterior, motives. It wants to break through to Taiwan, but first is looking for a way to undermine Taiwan’s security partnership or quasi-military alliance with the US concerning the Diaoyutais.
When President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office and adopted a pro-Chinese policy, wanting to build mutual military trust between China and Taiwan, the Chinese military saw its chance. It used the sovereignty dispute between Taiwan and other countries bordering on the South China Sea to initiate military cooperation between Taiwan and China, and now it is pushing hard for the same cooperation over the Diaoyutais.
The result is that the Diaoyutais and Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) have become geopolitical pillars in China’s attempts to undermine Taiwan’s role in the island chain issue.
Representative to the US King Pu-tsung (金溥聰) has said that the Diaoyutais have made East Asia a sensitive issue, adding that Taiwan is an important reason for the US’ redeployment toward the Asia-Pacific. This displays an understanding of Taiwan’s position in light of China’s manipulations.
Regardless of what happens, Taiwan must be both bold and cautious. This is a dangerous situation and the nation is small.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Perry Svensson