The Diaoyu Dao: Taiwan between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Chinese – Japanese raw over the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands is overshadowing Taiwan´s territorial claims over the rocky islands, 120 nautical miles from its coast, in the East China Sea. Since Japan signed the Treaty of San Francisco with the USA it is claiming sovereignty over the islands.

The predominant regional power China claims sovereignty over the islands since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). So far the dispute has been restricted to diplomacy and an exchange of fire between patrol boats with water cannons but the situation is growing increasingly tense.

Taiwan realizes that it is unlikely to win a dispute over either China or Japan. Taiwanese policy is likely to be based on how it can benefit most in terms of access to fishery and energy resources without lasting damages to either of its neighbors. Siding with either party will invariably be a choice between a rock and a hard place.

Taiwan´s arguments for sovereignty over the Diaoyu islands are fundamentally identical with those of China, published in a recent Chinese white-paper on the islands.

Since US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Asia in September and his statements, that China and Japan may be heading for war, the Japanese-US pressure against Taiwan may in deed have backfired by raising concerns that Taiwan will be caught up in a potentially catastrophic conflict. Panetta´s fear-mongering has driven Taiwan toward mainland China.

The Japanese government has been trying to alleviate the diplomatic damage of Leon Panetta´s diplomatic brinkmanship by offering Taiwan first tier fishing rights within Japan´s claimed exclusive economic zone around the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands, but it is unlikely that Taiwan will swallow the bait. There are too many other factors playing in, not least those related to eventual oil resources, gas resources and favorable deals with Beijing.

Taiwan´s government does not have the military might of either China or Japan to back up its claims but it has shrewd diplomats who know how to play the game of international diplomacy and opinion.

The much publicized clash between twelve Japanese patrol boats and a fleet of Taiwanese fishing vessels within the economic exclusion zone around the Islands claimed by Japan coincided with Japanese attempts to outmaneuver Taiwan by offering first tier fishery rights.

The message from Taiwan was that Taiwan was unwilling to swallow that bait of being granted the fishing rights which Japan has illegally violated since 1996, when Japan unilaterally enacted its law on the establishment of the exclusive economic zone around the Diaoyu – Senkaku islands and the continental shelf.

The administration of Taiwan´s President Ma Ying-jeou is unlikely to risk a domestic political disaster by losing the votes of its fishery related constituents. In fact, it is apt at using the dispute politically by deflecting attention from other pressing political issues.

Even after the battle of water-cannons between Japanese patrol boats and Taiwanese fishing vessels the approval rating of Ying-jeou´s government was as low as 17 per cent. The official unemployment is around 4.4 per cent and price hikes for electricity and basic food have resulted in demands for no-confidence votes.

Yin-jeou´s strong stance against Japan, calling Japan´s actions an invasion of the territory of the Republic of China and media appearances associated with military posturing have brought the often neglected Taiwan into the focus of world-wide attention which has alleviated some of the worst domestic pressures on the government.

It is unlikely that Ma Yin-jeou and his administration won´t try to gain as many political points as possible by playing the conflict card.

Due to overfishing the coastal fishing zones of Taiwan, Japan and most other fisheries world-wide have been significantly depleted. The fishing zone around the Diaoyu Dao is one of the richest fishing zones in the East China Sea.

Since it implemented the economic exclusion zone around the islands in 1996, Japan has consequently expelled Taiwanese fishing vessels, boarded vessels and enforced astronomical fines by threatening to confiscate the vessels unless the fines are paid.

Negotiations between Taiwan and Japan on the issue have been ongoing since 2009 but no agreement on how to approach the dispute, let alone how to solve it has been reached. Chinese – Taiwanese relations during the Hu and Yin-jeou administrations have been extraordinarily friendly and Yin-jeou is unlikely to let his administration be impressed by Japan´s bate about first tier fishing rights.

Beijing´s reaction to Japan´s attempt to legitimize its nationalization of the islands was prompt and unequivocal. The Diaoyu Dao have been sovereign Chinese territory for centuries.

They first appeared on a Chinese map during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). China has not signed the Treaty of San Francisco and considers it illegitimate and invalid. China perceive the deployment of US missiles in Japan, US involvement in the dispute between the Philippines and China over islands in the South East China Sea, and the aggravation of the conflict over the Diaoyu Dao as elements of US hegemony and an attempt to deny China its legitimate rights to resources and the peaceful development of Chinese commercial interests in the region.

Possibly Taiwan´s Yin-jeou administration will utilize the strong Chinese position in an attempt to pressure Japan into further concessions with respect to fisheries, but even with additional concessions from Japan, Taiwan would not want to seriously harm Chinese-Taiwanese relations by making territorial concessions.

The domestic support for the policy of Japan´s Prime Minister Yoshiko Noda in the dispute has never been particularly strong. Many perceived Japan´s unwillingness to compromise as dictated from Washington.

Besides that, Prime Minister Noda has to cope with growing public demands from prominent members of Japanese society and from Japanese fishery lobbies to give Taiwan´s fishermen access to the fishing grounds on the basis that the Diaoyu islands have traditionally been shared between the fishermen of Taiwan and the fishermen of Japans Okinawa Prefecture.

P.M. Yoshiko Noda was presented with a first class public relations disaster when the Japanese liaison Tadashi Imai who was sent to Taipei in haste to jump-start Japanese-Taiwanese fishery negotiations returned empty-handed.

According to several high-profile international lawyers the treaty of San Francisco, on which Japan bases its claim of sovereignty over the islands is not legally valid. The fact that China has never signed the treaty further strengthens Beijing´s position.

Japan is most likely trying to throw Taiwan a line with more than one hook, adding additional bait. Lucrative trade deals and deals on agriculture are likely candidates. Will the Yin-jeou administration go and swallow any of the bait, hook, line and sinker?

Most likely not. Yin-jeou knows only too well that once Taiwan has swallowed the hook it will be used as bait for catching a bigger fish, China. Regardless how Taiwan decides, it seems to be a decision between a rock and a hard place.


By Christof Lehmann

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