Photo: (AP Photo/Central News Agency)
A SMALL fish like Taiwan, diplomatically isolated as it is, does not often pick a fight with both of Asia’s largest economies at the same time. But this disputed island chain, known to Japan as the Senkaku islands and to China as the Diaoyus, is casting its strange spell across the whole of the East China Sea.A fierce shootout with water-cannon broke out between Japan’s coast guard and Taiwan’s on the morning of September 25th. The Japanese side was trying to repel an armada of almost 60 Taiwanese fishing vessels, which had sailed irritatingly near the islets, by blasting some of them with deck-mounted water cannon. Taiwan’s patrol boats retaliated by firing back with their own high-pressure hoses at the Japanese coastguard ships, all the while booming over loudspeakers that these rocks are the sovereign territory of the Republic of China (Taiwan’s official name) and that the Japanese vessels must leave Taiwan’s territory immediately. The fishing fleet managed to sail within three nautical miles (5.5km) of the disputed islands, before being turned back by the Japanese side. Meanwhile Taiwan’s navy dispatched frigates to the country’s north-eastern coast and scrambled warplanes, such as F-16s and Mirages, to monitor the civilian armada, according to a statement issued by the defence ministry on September 26th. The point, they say, was to be prepared for any eventuality. The president, Ma Ying-jeou, lent his support too, not missing a chance to add that the waters around the contested islands have been fishing grounds for Taiwan’s fishermen for more than 100 years.
This marked Taiwan’s first foray into the waters that surround the uninhabited Diaoyus since the Japanese government first nationalised a few of them, two weeks ago. The Japanese government is said to have protested to Taiwan through Japan’s de facto embassy. The incident complicates the ongoing row between Japan and the People’s Republic of China, over the archipelago’s sovereignty. Even without Taiwan’s interference, the affair has triggered huge protests on the mainland, some of them violent, and calls to boycott Japanese business.
Chinese boats have briefly entered into waters surrounding the contested islets in recent weeks (and a vessel from Hong Kong even landed), but they were never made the target of Japanese water-cannon. This could be because, unlike the Taiwanese fishing fleet, they tend to leave quickly after verbal warnings.
China put its first aircraft-carrier into service on September 25th, in a show of defiance towards Japan. But China and Japan appear to also want to show the public they are working to soothe tensions. They symbolised their good intentions with a four-hour meeting on the same day as the carrier’s launch, bringing together China’s vice foreign minister, Zhang Zhijun, and his Japanese counterpart, Chikao Kawai. The two were flanked by their aides for a photo-op at China’s foreign ministry, though the talks themselves seem not to have produced much progress.
The question then is, with Japan and China each doing their bit to calm things down, why has Taiwan suddenly taken up the sabre-rattling? No doubt many Taiwanese patriotically believe the islets belong to Taiwan. These would include both pro-China elements in Mr Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) and members of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, who like to annoy China by asserting Taiwan’s sovereignty. Mr Ma is suffering from dismal popularity ratings, as low as 15% in some polls, and tough-talking over the islets could boost his standing. On the other hand, his ratings have been hurting for a while now and yet until this incident, Mr Ma had appeared to respond to public pressure by favouring a low-key and rational approach. In early August he announced something called the East China Sea Peace Initiative, which called on the archipelago’s three claimants—Taiwan, China and Japan—to put aside their disputes, start up a dialogue and develop the area’s resources in harmony. So what happened?
The answer, says George Tsai, a political pundit with Taipei’s ChineseCultureUniversity, is a simple case of international gamesmanship. Taiwan hopes to force Japan’s hand in upcoming negotiations over fishing rights. The president of the unofficial body that represents Japanese interests in Taipei (in the absence of diplomatic ties), Tadashi Imai, arrived on September 25th for a scheduled discussions with Taiwan’s foreign minister, Timothy Yang, over the rights of Taiwanese to fish in waters claimed by Japan.
Despite the bluster, with so few allies, Taiwan lacks clout on the world stage. It is not likely to wish to inflame the bigger dispute further. Ironically, this incident is likely to have a greater impact on the public in China proper. China’s “netizens” frequently use occasions like these to criticise their own government in Beijing for not mustering as fierce a stance with regard to the disputed islets as is its old enemy, the KMT. Taiwan’s semi-official Central News Agency reports that the incident was widely covered by the Chinese media. Indeed, it was for a time the second-most-popular news headline on Baidu, China’s online search engine—just after an item about China’s own new aircraft-carrier.
(Picture credit: AFP)
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