Taiwan has adopted a two-pronged approach toward the high-stakes dispute over the Diaoyutai (釣魚台, Senkaku) islands — a handful of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by Taipei, Tokyo and Beijing. On the one hand, it has promoted a diplomatic solution to the quarrel. On the other, it has supported activists who claim that the islands belong to Taiwan and/or China, and might be inching closer to Beijing. In August, 2012, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) proposed an “East China Sea Peace Initiative” calling on all disputants to exercise restraint, shelve controversies, engage in peaceful dialogue and observe international law. He argued that, while sovereignty cannot be divided, natural resources can be shared. Ma suggested that Tokyo, Beijing and Taipei should work together to explore and develop resources in the East China Sea. As a multilateral meeting might prove difficult at the outset, Ma later suggested bilateral discussions first between the three parties (Taipei-Tokyo, Taipei-Beijing and Beijing-Tokyo). He reasoned that this arrangement might be a way to nudge negotiations forward.
In addition to this “soft” approach, Taipei has thrown its support behind activists seeking to land on the contested islands and/or and fish in the area. It has also raised concerns that it might be moving closer to Beijing in an effort to devise and coordinate policies that will pressure Tokyo into making meaningful concessions.
Taiwan’s “East China Sea Peace Initiative,” a measured approach to a complicated dispute, has generated support and praise from the international community. However, the other element in Taiwan’s strategy — particularly its assertive behavior — has not. Analysts have warned Taipei that belligerent behavior in the East China Sea will annoy Washington — Taiwan’s only security partner and most powerful advocate in the global community. At a public event on December 4, 2012, Kurt Campbell, then Assistant Secretary of the US Department of State, confirmed that American officials had communicated to their counterparts in Taipei “the expectation that Taiwan not take steps to provoke misunderstandings or tensions over the Senkaku Islands.” Randy Schriver, a former US State Department official, also warned that “Taiwan should avoid the appearance of collusion [with China] because I believe that would be viewed unfavorably.”
Some Taiwan-based analysts suggest that the US and others need to adopt a more balanced perspective. They suggest that the East China Sea Peace Initiative provided Tokyo with little incentive to negotiate. But high-profile clashes involving Taiwanese and Japanese coast guard vessels demonstrated that Taipei was serious. Such tactics also ensured that the international community and global media would understand that there are three disputants in this quarrel — not just Japan and the PRC. In other words, Taiwan’s assertive behavior helped ensure that its voice will be heard.
Thus far, most observers agree that Taiwan has played a good hand with the bad cards it has been dealt. As the weakest and most vulnerable player in this game, it comes as little surprise that many expected Taipei to be marginalized or even ignored in the complicated territorial dispute. On April 10, 2013, however, Japan made its first-ever concession in the quarrel when it agreed to provide Taiwan’s fishing fleet with the additional use of more than 4,530 square kilometers of contested ocean. This means Taiwanese boats can now operate freely in a 7,400 kilometer area around the Diaoyutai islands (Tokyo still insists that Taiwan’s fleet cannot fish in waters within 12 nautical miles of the islands). The two sides also agreed to establish a bilateral fishing commission to settle other issues related to fishing in the area
Officially, Taipei attributes the recent breakthrough to the “East China Sea Peace Initiative” and the cordial relationship that the two countries have enjoyed for many years. And in some respects, the new fishing agreement is similar to Taipei’s peace proposal. For instance, both sides still claim sovereignty over the islands. And both sides have agreed to share the fishing rights.
Others have a different interpretation of events. During recent discussions with the author, the president of a prominent think tank in Taipei warned that “Taiwan is Japan’s only friend [in East Asia] and if they think they are losing this friend to China, they will go crazy.” The leaders in Tokyo may not have lost their minds, but some suspect the prospect of Taipei teaming up with Beijing was sufficient cause to push Tokyo into reaching out to Taiwan and softening its approach to the fishing dispute. As Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), former president of the ROC, observed, the “China factor” was the cause of Tokyo’s concession to Taiwan. Numerous Taiwan academics agree with this assessment. With respect to the PRC, it cannot be too pleased with developments.
An op-ed in China’s Global Times complained that Taipei had used Beijing and/or the threat of a united front to wrest concessions from Tokyo. The editorial emphasized that “Taiwan alone cannot compete with Japan.” The Global Times editorial could be correct. But this episode also shows that Beijing needs to approach the cross-strait relationship in a more pragmatic way and adopt some new thinking on the concepts of sovereignty and the political status of the ROC. Recent events show that meaningful cross-strait cooperation on a host of international issues will be difficult — if not impossible — so long as Beijing embraces the archaic policy that insists the government in Taipei does not exist. In fact, it is possible that both Japan and China will now see a need to recalibrate their respective policies toward Taiwan if they hope to enlist its support on significant regional matters.
Dennis Hickey is the director of the Graduate Program in Global Studies and distinguished professor of Political Science at Missouri State University.