By Ko Shu-ling, Jenny W. Hsu and Loa Iok-sin
The Presidential Office yesterday issued a statement that claimed sovereignty over the disputed Diaoyutai (釣魚台) island chain as President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) remained tight-lipped amid calls for him to clarify his position.
PHOTO: SAM YEH, AFP
The calls stemmed from a report in the Chinese-language United Daily News yesterday, which claimed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) had instructed a Taiwanese coast guard vessel to “back off” as it approached an area where a Taiwanese fishing boat had sunk after a collision with a Japanese patrol vessel on Tuesday.
The Taiwanese coast guard boat, which rushed to the area following the accident, “faced off” with the Japanese patrol vessel for more than one hour until it was recalled by the ministry, the report said.
The ministry rebutted the report yesterday, with Deputy Foreign Minister Andrew Hsia (夏立言) saying the ministry did not ask the Coast Guard Administration (CGA) to back down. But he admitted it did ask the CGA to stand by without entering the 12 nautical mile (22km) exclusion zone surrounding the islands.
A Taiwanese fishing boat registered in Taipei County, carrying three crewmembers and 13 fishermen, sank around 3:38am on Tuesday near the Diaoyutais, after it collided with the Japanese patrol boat.
The 16 people were all rescued by the Japanese patrol vessel and were taken to Ishigaki in the Ryuku island chain for medical checks and questioning.
The 13 fishermen returned home on Wednesday morning and two crewmembers were released yesterday, but captain Ho Hung-yu (何鴻義) is still being detained.
Maritime Patrol Directorate General Director-General Lin Fu-an (林福安) said that when the ship arrived at the scene the sailors and passengers from the sinking boat had been rescued, so the coast guard boat left the scene approximately an hour later after they had finished taking pictures.
During the process, Japanese vessels and their crews did not interfere, he said.
Peter Tsai (蔡明耀), the head of the foreign ministry’s Committee of Japanese Affairs, said that he was the one who placed the call to the CGA and asked the vessel to stay away from the zone after he got a request from the Japanese side.
“I take all responsibility for this matter,” he said, adding he did not know that the CGA vessel had already entered the zone when he called.
Tsai said he did not obtain permission from his superiors and he unilaterally decided to recall the CGA fleet. He offered to resign yesterday to shoulder responsibility.
The Diaoyutai (the Senkaku in Japanese) are an island chain 222km north of Taiwan, and claimed by Taiwan, China and Japan.
Beijing expressed its displeasure over the collision on Tuesday, saying the Japanese had no right to enter its territorial waters and harrass a “China Taiwan” boat.
The foreign ministry yesterday reasserted that the Diaoyutai are under the Republic of China’s jurisdiction and urged Japan to return to the negotiating table to settle the sovereignty dispute in a “peaceful and diplomatic manner.”
Foreign Minister Francisco Ou (歐鴻鍊) met with Ikeda Tadashi, the chief representative of the Interchange Association, Japan’s representative office in Taipei yesterday, to protest the Japanese intrusion into the ROC’s territorial waters and demand Ho’s immediate release.
Ryoji Takagai, Interchange Association spokesman, was unavailable for comment at press time.
Earlier yesterday, several Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators urged Ma to take a hardline stance on the issue.
KMT Legislator Lin Yu-fang (林郁方) of the legislature’s Diplomacy and National Defense Committee, said he would not rule out demanding that the Ministry of National Defense (MND) send out military vessels to assert the nation’s sovereignty over the Diaoyutai islands.
Lin also said that the committee had demanded the MND send a warship with lawmakers on board next Wednesday to inspect the area where the incident took place.
MND Spokeswoman Colonel Lisa Chi (池玉蘭) confirmed that the ministry had received the request from lawmakers and that the ministry will cooperate with lawmakers if the request is approved by the Cabinet.
KMT Legislator Shuai Hua-min (帥化民), also a member of the committee, called the collision “provocative,” adding that Tokyo could be testing the bottom line of Ma’s administration.
“Our MOFA was too weak [on this issue],” KMT caucus secretary-general Chang Sho-wen (張碩文) said when asked for comment.
Some pan-green lawmakers have panned high-ranking government officials responsible for the matter, such as Ou, for using Tsai as a scapegoat for the blunder.
“We read from the press that Ou asked the coast guard to back off and disengage. If that is true, Ou should take responsibility and step down,” DPP caucus whip William Lai (賴清德) said.
After postponing a press conference twice yesterday — first to 12:15pm and then to 4pm — Presidential Office Spokesman Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) told reporters that the administration’s resolve to protect the islets’ sovereignty had never changed and will remain unchanged.
The MOFA fully understands the position and will act accordingly, he said.
Wang later added that the delay of the press conference was due to his teaching obligation at Shih Hsin University.
Regarding the fishing dispute with Japan, Wang said the Presidential Office protested Japan’s actions and demanded Tokyo immediately release the captain and compensate any losses incurred during the incident.
Wang, however, fell short of setting a timetable for Tokyo to fulfill the demands, saying that the media should take the question to the MOFA because the ministry is responsible for negotiations.
Wang also declined to answer what the administration would do if Tokyo did not respond positively.
While Ma was an avid advocate for the islets’ sovereignty before he was elected president and once proposed military engagement to settle the dispute, he has kept a low profile since the incident took place on Tuesday.
Wang declined to comment on whether Ma was still in favor of military force, only reiterating that the administration’s resolve to protect the sovereignty of the Diaoyutai’s will remain unchanged.
Wang yesterday dismissed talk that Ma was weak, saying that the statement he read fully reflected Ma’s attitude. Nor did they feel that the foreign ministry was weak in handling the matter, he said.
Wang also rejected the accusation that they were slow in making the Presidential Office’s position known, arguing that it was because it is inappropriate for the president to jump to the frontline.
He said, however, that the Presidential Office was on top of things. The reason that the Presidential Office came forth yesterday was not because the foreign ministry or CGA had handled the matter poorly, Wang said, but because it was time to speak up on the matter.
Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) visited the disputed Spratly Islands in February this year and the Pratas Islands in July 2005 to assert sovereignty claims, but Wang yesterday declined to comment whether Ma would do the same, saying he had nothing to add beyond the statement.
Wang also declined to comment on whether it was possible to take the fishing disputes with Japan to the international court.
Regarding whether the government planned to dispatch warships to protect fishing rights, Wang said he would not answer a “hypothetical” question.
Regarding calls for Ou’s resignation, Wang declined to answer whether the ministry had neglected its duty, saying they would leave the matter to the Executive Yuan and that it was inappropriate for the president to step in because by doing so he would “confuse the constitutional order.”
Also yesterday, families of crew members of the boat that collided with the Japanese vessel and their supporters staged a protest in front of the Japanese representative office in Taipei.
“The Japanese authorities can expel the boat, but they cannot just hit the boat like that — it’s serious,” said Yang Fong-ying (楊鳳英), Ho’s wife.
Yang also expressed her dismay at the government’s reaction. “China has already protested, but our Fisheries Agency and Ministry of Foreign Affairs don’t dare to say anything!” She said. “Do [our fishing boats] have to fly the Chinese flag from now on to be safe?”
“I pray to Matsu [媽祖, the goddess of the sea] and all other immortals, please bring my husband back home safely,” she said. “The government is useless, so I’m asking you, the gods, to help.”
Taipei County Commissioner Chou Hsi-wei (周錫瑋), who accompanied the crew members’ families to the protest, urged the government to take stronger action against the Japanese government, including sending military vessels to safeguard Taiwanese fishing boats in the area.
An official from the Interchange Association accepted the letter of protest, but declined to comment until further directions from Tokyo.
Later yesterday, Executive Yuan Spokeswoman Vanessa Shih said the government has demanded Japan release Ho and offer compensation and an apology for the incident through diplomatic channels.
“The government hopes to receive a positive response [to the three demands] from Japan within a short time. If not, we won’t rule out other measures in handling [the case],” Shih said.
Shih made the remarks after Premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) met with Chou and Yang yesterday.
Yang told the press that her husband had told his friends in Taiwan that the Japanese side asked for ¥500,000 (US$4,600) in exchange for his return.
Shih ruled out paying money to get the captain back, calling on the Japanese government to allow Taiwanese officials to accompany Ho during questioning.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHIH HSIU-CHUAN,
JIMMY CHUANG, FLORA WANG AND CNA
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