As if the situation in the East China Sea weren't complicated enough, a third party, Taiwan, also claims sovereignty over a group of islands there. The quiet island state recently got quite loud.
One glance at a map is enough to understand why in addition to Japan and China, Taiwan also claims territorial rights over the islands in the East China Sea, known in Chinese as the Diaoyu and in Japanese as the Senkaku Islands.
Taiwan's coast is located only 180 kilometers southwest of the archipelago, making Taiwan closer to the islands than Japan or China.
For hundreds of years, Taiwanese fishermen have considered the area as their own. That is recognizable in the word Diaoyu, which in Chinese means platform for fishing. For years, Taiwanese fishermen have been complaining that they are pushed back by Japanese coastguard.
The new wave of protest from Taiwanese fishermen gave the island spat a new dimension.
They went out with Taipei's blessing. Ten ships from the Taiwanese coastguard accompanied the fishing boats on their protest, which lasted longer than 24 hours. When near the coast of the islands, Japanese ships got in their way, both sides started firing water cannon at each other. Taiwan's coastguard demanded over a loudspeaker that the Japanese ships respect Taiwan's territory.
It does the Taiwanese quite good to wave their flag and show some confidence. Taipei's self-confidence is not that good, considering that, from an international perspective, it is hardly taken seriously.
Even within Taiwan, the government is fairing quite poorly among people, according to recent polls and the economy is hurting. The new outburst of patriotism and claim to territory that seemed long forgotten might just be a diversion from all of this.
Taiwan's official name is the "Republic of China." The country, which was founded on the Chinese mainland, was one of the victorious powers over Japan at the end of the Second World War. Thus for Taipei, the Diaoyu Islands - which, along with Taiwan itself, had been part of Japan since 1895 - belong to the territories which Japan had to return to China after 1945. And by China, the Republic of China is meant, as it had not yet lost to the Communists in the Chinese Civil War.
The president at the time, Chiang Kai-shek did, however, not protest when US soldiers occupied the island instead of his own troops. Nor did he protest when the Americans, handed them over to Japan in 1972 along with Okinawa. At that time, both the US and Japan had diplomatic ties with Taipei; during the Cold War, they were allied against the Communist threat from mainland China. Upset over the apparent complacency of their government, Taiwanese students started an anti-Japan movement in the US.
One of those students was Lin Shiaw-shin. People have been taking new interest in his Aliance to Protect the Diaoyu Islands since the Japanese government bought a few of the islands mid September and thus aggravating the conflict.
"Japan must hand over the islands immediately and unconditionally," is the group's main demand. A few days ago, thousands of people gathered in the Taiwanese capitol to demand the same thing. The number of participants this time was much higher than ever before. Contrary to anti-Japan protests in China, however, people in Taiwan demonstrated peacefully.
"We do not condone violence," 68-year-old Lin said. "But I can, nonetheless, understand that emotions are running high. Nearly every family on the mainland did, after all, suffer at the hand of Japan's militarism."
He was less skeptical of Beijing and said he could even imagine joint Taiwanses-Chinese patrol missions to protect the fishermen.
"Ending the Japanese occupation is our both of our interest. Both sides of the Taiwan Straight will find a peaceful solution to all of the other problems later."
Japan: important ally
Nationalists like Lin do not make up the majority of Taiwanese. Though recent years have seen an increase in "sunshine politics" between China and Taiwan, the thought of military cooperation with China pushes the limit for most. Besides that, despite not having diplomatic relations with the country, Japan is Taiwan's closest ally in the region. The economic giant has for decades been an important investor and buyer of Taiwanese goods. Japanese is the second most popular foreign language after English and Japan is a very popular tourist destination for Taiwanese. Taiwan's protective power, the US, has also made clear that the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands fall under the US-Japanese defense treaty.
So there is a good chance that Taipei will not allow anything similar to the symbolic yet provocative fishing boat skirmish to happen any time soon. Weeks ago, President Ma Ying-jeou presented a peace initiative to suggest that all three countries deal with mutual conflicts through negotiations. The joint management of raw materials could be a possible outcome of that initiative. But because Taiwan's sovereignty over the islands is not being questioned and neither China nor Japan see the government in Taipei as an equal negotiating partner, the plan's success does not seem likely.