From a short-term perspective, the immediate cause for the increasingly intense conflict over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), the Liancourt Rocks — known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan — and the disputed islands in the South China Sea is the populist and nationalist mobilization made by the governments of South Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines ahead of elections or, in China’s case, a leadership transfer.
While politicians have encouraged this mobilization, they have also been careful to not let it get out of hand. This is why Japan’s change of ambassadors in China and South Korea, Taiwan’s recall of its representative to Japan after the Japanese government announced that it would buy three of the Diaoyutai Islands, and China’s dispatching of two ocean surveillance ships to the area probably marks the climax of the conflict which is now likely to gradually wind down.
The reason these conflicts have reached their current fever pitch is the long history and current strategic situation in East Asia. However, this does not mean that the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) view that China’s historical sovereignty over the Diaoyutais reach back to the Han Dynasty is correct.
The CCP and the KMT love to talk about historical sovereignty, for example by claiming that Taiwan has been a part of China since ancient times. Chinese historical expert Ge Jianxiong (葛劍雄), a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, criticizes these claims in one of his works: Unification and Division: The Enlightenment of Chinese History, saying that they do not hold water. Ge adds that when Sun Quan (孫權) — founder and emperor of Eastern Wu, one of the three kingdoms — sent soldiers to Taiwan, it was a stupid attempt to take captives and plunder that could not be used as evidence of sovereignty. The Ming and Qing dynasties implemented a ban on maritime trade and activities for several hundred years, in effect turning China into a landlocked country. This makes it more than a bit strange to now suddenly hear of China’s historical maritime sovereignty claims. The Chinese concept of maritime rights was a very recent invention. In 1935, the Chinese government stated that China’s “territorial waters extend for three nautical miles [5.5km].”
The crucial event that brought the Diaoyutai Islands and Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) into the realm of modern sovereignty disputes was the invasion by the Japanese imperialist state. The first time Itu Aba came under the organized jurisdiction of a government was when it was included in Kaohsiung Prefecture during the Japanese colonization of Taiwan. After World War II, Taiwan continued its effective occupation of the island, including it in the jurisdiction of Kaohsiung City. The Diaoyutais were only integrated into the fishing grounds of Taiwanese fishermen with the introduction of modern engine-driven fishing boats. The basis for these two claims thus have nothing to do with Chinese history.
Modern international law stipulates that territorial water claims can be based on practical occupation, prescription, being part of a continental shelf and inclusion in economic waters. “Historic sovereignty” is conspicuous by its absence from this list of legitimate claims. The Diaoyutais sit right on the continental shelf that extends from Datun Mountain.
By claiming historical sovereignty, the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is giving up a strong claim in favor of joining China in staking a useless claim based on Chinese historical sovereignty.
Furthermore, during the Japanese occupation, the surrounding waters belonged to the colonies of imperialist Western nations rather than sovereign and independent nations. After the war, Japan renounced “all right, title and claim” to Taiwan and the islands in the South China Sea without transferring ownership to any other entity. At the time, none of the surrounding countries declared any interest in these islands.
In 1967, a UN team exploring the East Asian continental shelf announced that the waters contained rich oil deposits. That set off the conflict over the islands among surrounding nations.
The first to protest against the Japanese occupation of the Diaoyutais were students from Taiwan in the US. China, apart from sending 200 boats to claim sovereignty over the islands in 1978, did not try to protect its sovereignty claim. In addition, thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) foreign policy of keeping a low profile and China and Japan experiencing a honeymoon in their relations, Beijing tacitly agreed that Japan had de facto control over the islands and took the view that the conflict should be shelved and the region should be jointly developed.
Up until the 1990s, China was getting so close to Japan that it even banned debate on the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, while Japan provided China with long-term economic assistance and remained the only democracy who was friendly to China in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.
After 1990, China began to take nationalism centered on anti-Japanese sentiment as a substitute for communism to establish the legitimacy of its rule. This change was followed by a surge in the movement to protect sovereignty over the Diaoyutais.
It was at this time that the US started to shift its Cold War policy of working together with China to contain the Soviet Union toward a two-pronged policy of both containing and maintaining exchanges with China.
The rising power of China is becoming increasingly obvious, and, no longer content to keep a low diplomatic profile, it is now working hard to break through the first island chain. It was these ambitions that led to China’s 1996 military exercise, which set off the Taiwan Strait crisis, and to the competition between China and US to see who could hold the biggest military exercise in 2010.
It is worth noticing that Taiwan is becoming a favorite tool of the US and China in their tug-of-war over the island chain. This could offer Taiwan a better position in its exchanges with Japan. Taiwan should use this to its own advantage; it just has to remember to stay away from the stupidities that Ge warned about.
Lin Cho-shui is a former legislator for the Democratic Progressive Party.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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