While it would be tempting, given the timing, to see a conspiracy in last week’s flare-up involving Taiwanese fishermen, Coast Guard Administration (CGA) vessels and Japanese patrol ships near the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as Senkaku in Japan — there probably was less to the incident than meets the eye, and it is unlikely the embattled government of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) could have used it to divert attention from a mounting corruption scandal.
The skirmish, during which People’s Republic of China (PRC) flag-carrying members of the Baodiao (Defend the Diaoyutais) movement, escorted by five coast guard ships, came within 740m of the islets — well within the 12 nautical miles (22.22km) exclusion zone set by the Japanese Coast Guard — happened at an opportune moment for Ma, whose administration is struggling with a snowballing corruption scandal surrounding former Executive Yuan secretary-general Lin Yi-shih (林益世).
For a short while, media turned their attention to the standoff and it looked like Ma and his Cabinet would get a bit of a break.
However, no sooner had the god-sent hiatus begun than new revelations were made in the Lin case; soon enough corruption, not disputed islets, was again the talk of the town.
Even if Ma, as some of his detractors suspected, had manufactured the incident, there is very little reason to believe it would have prevented his administration’s reputation from being damaged by the Lin scandal.
While Ma and some members of his administration hold firmly to the sovereignty claims over the Diaoyutais, the majority of Taiwanese could not care less. For most, the dispute is part of the silly intermittent games politicians play, and their view of Japan as a friendly nation — as opposed to an object of nationalistic resentment — remains unaffected.
Even if the incident had been engineered by the Ma administration, it is likelier that the main cause of that decision would have been the announcement by the Japanese government of its intention to purchase some of the islets, not the political storm that was brewing at home.
However, the conspiracy theory loses steam when we look at the main protagonists.
Every year, usually in June, the Baodiao movement engages in a largely symbolic visit to the area. While it receives funding from Hong Kong, analysts believe that some of the money comes from the Chinese Communist Party.
Created in the 1970s to oppose the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) lack of attention to the Diaoyutais issue, the Baodiao movement united a number of Taiwanese and Chinese “nationalists” (mostly students) in their dislike for former Republic of China (ROC) president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and eventually coalesced into a pro-China — in many instances, pro-unification — movement.
Operating largely outside the mainstream, the Baodiao movement can be as much of a headache for Ma as for Tokyo. In fact, even though Ma firmly believes that the Diaoyutais belong to the ROC, early in his first term he angered the movement when his government prevented its members from visiting the islets, saying this would undermine relations with Tokyo.
Judging from Japan’s strong reaction to the latest incident, it is evident that using the Baodiao as a political tool to dupe the public would be a very risky game, one that Ma probably would not want to play.
The movement favors unification and made that clear by bringing only the People’s Republic of China flag (the claim that they “forgot” to bring the ROC flag is risible).
Its members, however much we disagree with their political beliefs or actions (which were not illegal under domestic laws), are ROC citizens, meaning that the coast guard had a responsibility to ensure their safety, while also making sure that their antics did not cause an incident that could undermine Taipei’s relations with Tokyo.
Sometimes things are just that simple. Not everything is a conspiracy.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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