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Taiwan positions self as key in islands dispute

Publication Date : 24-10-2012


While the world's attention has been focused on the rivalry between China and Japan over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, Taiwan — which has the same territorial claims as China — has come up with what it calls a “peace initiative” involving all three parties.

On August 5, a month before the Japanese government nationalised three of the disputed islands, triggering the crisis with China, President Ma Ying-jeou presented a proposal to set aside the territorial dispute involving Taiwan, China and Japan in favour of sharing economic resources.

Beijing has called on Taipei to present a united front to “protect national sovereignty” on the basis that Taiwan and the mainland are both parts of “one China.” As Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, compatriots from both sides of the Taiwan Strait should jointly safeguard the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation.

Taiwan has rejected such an approach, which would make it only an appendage of China and make it irrelevant internationally.

Instead, Ma in his proposal puts Taiwan, mainland China and Japan on the same level, calling for three separate bilateral dialogues (Taipei-Beijing, Taipei-Tokyo and Beijing-Tokyo), to be followed by a “single trilateral negotiation process”.

Since Beijing considers itself the rightful government of all China, with Taiwan little more than a breakaway province, it will certainly not endorse any proposal where both are put on the same level.

Interestingly, however, Japan has responded favourably to certain aspects of the proposal.

Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba has informed Taiwan through the Interchange Association, the unofficial body that represents Japan in Taiwan, that Tokyo agrees with the basic concept and spirit of the proposal, even though some parts of the initiative were unacceptable.

So Taiwan is now in the rare position of being wooed by both Beijing and Tokyo, each of which wants Taiwanese cooperation on this delicate issue.

The US, which plays a key role as the guarantor of Japan's security, has not responded to the Ma proposal, reiterating that claimants must resolve the issue themselves in a peaceful manner.

On the face of it, Ma's proposal is similar to what then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proposed in 1978 — shelve the territorial dispute in favour of joint development.

Since the 1970s Japan, which administers the islands, has sought to maintain the status quo by not taking actions that China considers provocative, such as developing the islands or even allowing Japanese to land — until the recent decision to nationalise the islands.

But the Ma proposal — which has been publicised through several talks by the president, advertisements in the US mainstream media and an online article in Foreign Policy magazine by Taiwan's foreign minister, David Lin — is more comprehensive than that of Deng.

In remarks last month, Ma said: “Simply put, the objective of the 'East China Sea Peace Initiative' is collective cooperation in a wide range of areas, such as fishing, mining, oceanographic research, environmental protection, maritime security and unconventional security issues.”

Where Taiwan is concerned, the right of its fishermen to work in the seas around the Diaoyutais — Taiwan's name for the islands, which the Japanese call the Senkakus — is crucial. Ma said that the waters there teemed with mackerel, skipjack tuna and pompano, and the area has been a traditional fishing ground for fishermen from Taiwan for hundreds of years.

Japan's reaction to the Ma initiative indicates that it wishes to ensure that Taiwan does not team up with mainland China on this issue. Already, indications are that Japan will resume fishery talks with Taiwan by the end of the year in an attempt to forestall it from joining forces with mainland China.

The Chinese foreign ministry has warned Japan to act in accordance with the “one China” principle when talking with Taiwan.

Taiwan is certainly right to be wary of teaming up with mainland China.

At a symposium in Taichung last week, sponsored by Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Chung Hsing University, a mainland speaker, Liu Jiangyong, a professor from Tsinghua University, noted that Beijing called the disputed territory the Diaoyu Islands while Taiwan used the name Diaoyutai, but he said that Taiwan is “not a country”.

The professor said the islands should be referred to as “China's Diaoyu Islands,” or “Diaoyu Islands, Yilan County, Taiwan Province, China.”

The mainland seems to concede that its claim to the islands is through their historical connection with Taiwan. But since China claims Taiwan, whatever Taiwan owns is, ipso facto, part of China.


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