The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has commissioned a series of short films taking a jocular look at the issue of sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台). In doing so, it has merely succeeded in demonstrating its incompetence in dealing with foreign relations and its penchant for dabbling in domestic affairs.
In the films, the ministry has, rather preposterously, chosen to invoke Li Hongzhang (李鴻章) — the senior Chinese official and negotiator working for imperial Manchu masters in the late 19th century who ceded Taiwan to Japan — instead of former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), in what has been seen as a provocative gesture to the Japanese.
When Li signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, he ceded both Taiwan and the Penghu archipelago — also known as the Pescadores — to Japan. In the treaty, he wrote the exact coordinates of the Penghu Islands, but left the reference to Taiwan as nothing but the name of the island itself.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) correspondence shows that Japan only included the Diaoyutais — known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands — as part of the Ryukyu Islands one year after the signing of the Shimonoseki treaty, intimating that the Diaoyutais had been ceded along with Taiwan, although the KMT did not see fit to make that point for 75 years.
China’s manipulation of the idea of protecting the Diaoyutais has always been about unification with Taiwan, seeking to spread division within the nation and ultimately to annex it. Everything to do with protecting the Diaoyutais, from the beginning of the movement back in 1971, has been initiated by China.
The KMT has had problems with its legitimacy domestically and its ability to represent all of China internationally, and it is deeply wary of China’s “nationalistic” unification drive. This means that it has had to keep a low profile and remain passive when it comes to the Diaoyutais.
During the Martial Law period, the KMT government’s grandiloquent claims to being the legally constituted authority of China and its nod to protecting the Diaoyutais were really about seeking a fake construct of legitimacy for a foreign power that had come to Taiwan with designs on ruling it.
In a different time and place, when the Republic of China (ROC) was still recognized as the sole representative of China, the ROC diplomat Cheng Pao-nan (鄭寶南) admitted to a US official that the KMT government would find it impossible to suppress the wave of Taiwanese ideological awareness rising in the nation if it ever lost its status as the “legitimate government of China.”
Back when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) first started echoing China’s calls to protect the Diaoyutais, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) was deputy premier.
On July 8, 1971, Chiang met with the US ambassador to the ROC, Walter McConaughy, and relayed the reasons the ROC had for protecting the Diaoyutais.
He told McConaughy that the issue had already developed into a major domestic problem for the KMT administration, particularly since the Chinese Communist Party had started to exploit the issue, whipping up Chinese nationalist sentiment abroad, and this had become a headache for the KMT.
However, since democratization, and Taiwanese’s growing awareness of Beijing’s exploitation of the Diaoyutais issue, these concerns have gone away.
It is just that Ma, who has made protecting the Diaoyutais something of a vocation, would prefer to invoke Li, the negotiator who had been so ambiguous in what he was ceding when he gave Taiwan to Japan, rather than a former Taiwanese president.
Clearly Ma is still preoccupied with the rather intractable issue of his own links with China.
James Wang is a media commentator.
Translated by Paul Cooper