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An end to the spat over Diaoyutai Islands

Publication Date : 20-09-2012


Yesterday marked the 81st anniversary of the Mukden Incident. In light of recent events, it seems that there is little chance that the current row over Japan's nationalisation of the three Senkaku islets will cease any time soon. But it's time for Taiwan to end its spat with Japan over the Diaoyutai Islands.

The Mukden Incident occurred on Sept 18, 1931 — a catalyst of Japan's invasion of China. First, Manchuria was occupied. Later, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident took place. Ultimately, the Pacific War blew up, leading to the fall of the Japanese Empire.

Many Chinese consider ultra-nationalist Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara's proposed purchase of the three Senkaku islets, which was later prevented by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's decision to nationalise them, to be another Liutiaogou Incident (Mukden Incident) of sorts.

Recently, Beijing started sending patrol boats to challenge the Japanese Coast Guardsmen. Protests against Japan spread across more than two dozen cities in China and turned violent on Saturday. Taipei has condemned Noda's nationalisation plan, called back its representative Shen Ssu-tsun from Tokyo and threatened to boycott the fishery talks scheduled for early next month.

The sovereignty dispute, which arose after a UN survey discovered the possibility of vast oil reserves under the waters of the Diaoyutais (Diaoyu Islands/Senkakus) more than four decades ago, defies solution. All three claimants insist that the isles are part of their inherent territory.

It seems that the best way to solve the dispute is by a modus vivendi which President Ma Ying-jeou is advocating through his East China Sea Peace Initiative. All claimants should shelve the dispute by jointly developing the resources of the island group and make the South China Sea “a sea of peace and prosperity.”

As a matter of fact, Noda's nationalisation plan was practically the only option open to him to prevent Ishihara from “defending the Senkakus in lieu of the (Japanese) government against a Chinese takeover.” If Ishihara's purchase had gone through, Japan's sovereignty row with China and Taiwan would have escalated to dangerous proportions.

In an effort to ease tensions, Japan responded favourably to President Ma's call — at least partially — by offering to resume the previously suspended fishery talks. Japan's Interchange Association, which represents Japanese interests in the absence of formal diplomatic ties with Taipei, issued a statement suggesting that “substantive cooperation projects be pushed forward” to ensure peace in the East China Sea.

Ma wishes to turn the bilateral fishery talks between Taipei and Tokyo into a tripartite dialogue between the three claimants; his plan certainly seems to be a starting point of a cooperation through which his modus vivendi may be eventually achieved.

Taipei shouldn't make good its threat with regard to the fishery talks, through which the temporary enforcement line — an unmarked line keeping Taiwan's fishermen away from their traditional fishing grounds — may be redefined in order to preclude our fishermen from being arrested or our ships from being detained by Japanese Coast Guardsmen.

The fishery talks which started more than a decade ago couldn't be successfully concluded due to Japan's intransigency. The current row over the disputed island group seems to have softened that intransigent position and chances are that serious but friendly negotiations will be crowned with success; if so, a thorn will be removed from Taiwan's side, and it will be able to maintain its most cordial relations with Japan.

Successful fishery negotiations, however, probably won't usher in the aforementioned trilateral dialogue mechanism. As a matter of fact, the proposed mechanism, even if set in place, probably wouldn't work due to mutual suspicion among all three claimants.

Nonetheless, if the fishery talks go ahead as planned, they will mark the first step toward a peaceful solution of the long lasting sovereignty dispute among the claimants whose main purpose, though none of them have professed this to be so, is to tap the precious oil reserves of the small archipelago in the East China Sea. Beijing may continue to argue with Tokyo, but Taipei had better call it quits.


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