Last month, Coast Guard Administration patrol boats entered the waters around the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as Senkaku in Japan — and this month, three boats from China’s Fishery Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) entered the 12 nautical mile (22km) zone surrounding the islands.
These events, which both drew protests from Japan, are of course connected to statements this spring by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara that the city should buy four of the islands and statements by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda earlier this month that the Japanese government is considering buying them.
Oddly, although the Taiwanese Diaoyutai activists traveled on the Quanjiafu fishing boat under the protection of five ships from the Taiwanese coast guard to declare sovereignty over the islands, they did so waving the Chinese flag.
Although both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Mainland Affairs Council have said that Taiwan will deal with the Diaoyutais issue by itself and will not join hands with China in an anti-Japanese protest, the current situation makes it clear that the governments on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are already working in unison.
There is no question that the thing that should worry the Taiwanese the most is the issue of who they are really fighting for.
Between 1969 and 1972, the US plan to return the Diaoyutais and Okinawa to Japan caused a furore. The Republic of China (ROC) found itself in a difficult and delicate diplomatic situation, and the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) position was unclear.
For example, on Jan. 16, 1970, then-deputy foreign minister Yang Hsi-kun (楊西崑) told Japan’s ambassador that the ROC government had not initiated the demonstrations and protests among Taiwanese students in the US in defense of the Diaoyutais, that it had tried to dissuade and stop the students, and that it would prevent them from developing into anti-Japanese protests that could affect relations with Japan.
The original analysis that the foreign ministry intended to submit to the Presidential Office and the Cabinet stated that if the government were to claim sovereignty over the islands, the protests could be used to support the government’s international exchanges. If, on the other hand, the government were not to claim sovereignty, the analysis said the protests could be used to divert attention from and even neutralize that fact.
In the end, the revised analysis took the stance that “an evaluation of the situation shows that it would be more appropriate to claim sovereignty.”
The student protests in 1970 called for the full protection of ROC sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands, and foreign ministry archives still contain a leaflet from that time, issued in the name of the New York chapter of the Action Committee to Protect the Chinese Territory of the Diaoyutai Islands.
It was an awkward situation, because although the ROC at the time was still a UN member, maintaining a good relationship with Japan and the US was probably more important than protecting “ROC territory.” This was also how Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) saw the issue. For example, his diary entry for April 7, 1971, said that: “This issue can not be solved militarily as we currently do not have the ability to station troops on the islands. If we spread our troops and the Communist bandits seize the opportunity, we will not be able to hold our current base.”
Without providing any evidence, a Taiwanese organization has recently made the offensive statement that “sovereignty over the Diaoyutai Islands indisputably belongs to Taiwan.”
China’s sovereignty claims often refer back to the Ming Dynasty and records of a mission to the Liuqiu (Ryukyu) Islands, something that of course cannot be used by Taiwan today.
Japan’s sovereignty claims, on the other hand, often refer to a Cabinet resolution from January 1895 allowing the governor of Okinawa Prefecture to stake a claim to the islands. Even more important, in 1972, the US finally returned the Diaoyutais and the Ryukyu Islands to Japan. After that, Taiwan’s claims can only be based on geographical factors such as the continental shelf and the Ryukyu Trench.
In short, the Diaoyutais discussion is still too weak from a Taiwanese sovereignty perspective and must be further developed. During the Japanese colonial era, Taiwan belonged to Japan, but what sense would it make to say that the Diaoyutais at that time were made part of Yilan County? If, after World War II, Taiwan belonged to China, then it equally makes no sense to say that the Diaoyutais belong to Taiwan.
Only by first creating an independent Taiwan will we have a foundation on which to join this dispute.
Chen Yi-shen is an associate research fellow at the Academia Sinica’s Institute of Modern History.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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