Taiwan’s claim of sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) is likely to be both “difficult and challenging,” a Washington conference was told on Wednesday.
Former deputy US assistant secretary of state for East Asia Randy Schriver said that of the three claimants to the islands, Taiwan was by far the smallest and held the least national power.
“And if you look historically, small claimants don’t tend to do well when disputes heat up,” he said.
“Taiwan has a difficult road to navigate between its most important economic partner, the People’s Republic of China [PRC], and its most important security partners, Japan and the alliance,” he said.
“It is extremely delicate,” he said.
Shriver told the conference on “Taiwan’s Approach to Escalating Sovereignty Disputes in East Asia” held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that “elections and selections” in Japan, China, the US and South Korea could make things even more complex.
“With all of these things bubbling up, you are talking about a hyper-charged environment informed by domestic politics,” he said.
The convener of the national security division at the National Policy Foundation, Stephen Chen (陳錫蕃), laid out Taiwan’s sovereignty claims to the islands in detail at the conference.
However, Shriver said Taiwan was the only claimant that lacked an internal consensus on the issue.
“There is strong consensus in Japan, there is strong consensus in the PRC, but there is no consensus in Taiwan that they should be a claimant and should be trying to assert sovereignty,” he said.
On the more positive side, Shriver said that Taiwan was not facing an election and could be more flexible, had put forward a five point initiative that could set or drive the agenda and had the most clear bottom line, which for Taiwan was fisheries.
All of this could lead to a pathway to negotiation and resolution, he said.
Shriver said the situation might become clearer next spring when, elections over, political leaders would start thinking about “governance rather than campaigning.”
At that time, he said, things might calm down and the US could intensify its diplomacy, leaving Taiwan with a role “if it plays its cards correctly.”
The director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, Alan Romberg, said the island issue was complicated and the history was “obviously in very significant dispute.”
Romberg said that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) had put forward suggestions he hoped would be a catalyst for peaceful management of disputes in both the East and South China Seas.
However, in trying to enhance Taiwan’s sovereignty claims, Ma, driven by domestic politics, went beyond the suggestions and peace plan by “encouraging and praising” a flotilla of fishing and coast guard boats that approached the islands and became involved in a water- canon fight with Japanese vessels.
“What Ma wants to achieve is a good fishing result [in negotiations with Japan] that will be acceptable to the fishing interests in Taiwan,” Romberg said.
He said that Ma’s peace initiative was generally consistent with US views and that no one expected Taiwan to give up sovereignty claims.
“But taking provocative steps is not conducive to peace — the emphasis should be on dialogue and diplomacy,” Romberg said.
He said the flotilla movement was clearly not a military action and that Taipei had no intention of creating lasting tensions with Tokyo.
Nevertheless, it had triggered political passions and created dangers that could have gotten out of hand with miscalculations and accidents.
Ma’s encouragement of the flotilla was “unhelpful” and was not part of the “measured and calm” steps the US wants to foster.
Romberg said he did not see “any of this having serious impact on Taiwan US relations,” but that it underscored the importance of close consultation between Taipei and Washington on a timely basis.
The discussion ended on a sour note when Chen became involved in an angry exchange during the question period with Washington-based liaison for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Michael Fonte.
Fonte disputed Chen’s claim that the San Francisco Peace Treaty ceded the Diaoyutai Islands to Taiwan and said their ownership was still undecided.
Chen accused Fonte of deliberately omitting facts and twisting history when all Fonte really wanted to say was that the people of Taiwan had the right to self-determination.
“I am happy to say that,” Fonte said.
Romberg said there were different views on how various treaties dealt with the ownership of Taiwan and of the Diaoyutai Islands.
He said the US “sidesteps” the question of Taiwan’s ownership and regards the relationship between Taiwan and China as something the two sides should settle peacefully themselves.