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Island dispute

Chiu Bi-Whei, Taipei / sgbApril 9, 2013

The dispute over the Senkaku Islands has almost exclusively focused on Japan and China, even though Taiwan also claims the islands. Taipei has proposed a peace initiative, which has so far been ignored.

Japanese coast guard Photo: Xie Menglin
Image: Xie Menglin

Huang Xilin, president of the Association to Defend the Taioyutai Islands, traveled to the Senkaku Islands with a Taiwanese fishing boat on January 24. He wanted to bring a statue of the goddess Matsu, patron of fishermen and sailors, to one of the islands, known as the Taioyutai Islands in Taiwan.

The Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea are claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan. The controversy over the islands worsened in September after the Japanese government bought the three islands it did not already own from their private owner, effectively nationalizing the dispute. The sale triggered strong anti-Japanese protests in China.

Huang's fishing boat was stopped 50 kilometers from the islands by eight boats of the Japan Coast Guard, which used water cannons to force it back out to sea.

Taipei's claim

To Huang and most Taiwanese, the Senkaku Islands belong to Taiwan, even though the islands were placed under Japanese control by the United States in 1972 under the terms of the Okinawa Reversion Treaty. The archipelago is located some 180 kilometers northeast of Taiwan and thus much closer to that country than to Japan or mainland China. The waters have always been important fishing grounds for Taiwanese vessels.

"Seen historically, the islands belong to the Chinese Qing Dynasty," Lee Cheng-hsiu, a researcher at a think tank linked to Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party, told DW, adding that in 1894 the Qing government gave the archipelago to Sheng Xuanhuai, a Qing official. "As successor state to the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China [Taiwan] clearly inherited the Senkaku Islands."

Activist Huang Xilin Photo: Xie Menglin
Activist Huang Xilin admits Taiwan's scope for action is limitedImage: Xie Menglin

Today, Taiwan's scope for action is very limited, according to Huang Xilin, an activist. "Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations; we have no right to negotiate with Japan over sovereignty issues," he said. "That's something Japan and the People's Republic of China have to determine. If we cannot negotiate over issues of sovereignty, then we want to at least have a say in fishing, with is our livelihood. That is my goal. And that's why I emphasize again and again that Taiwan and China must work together on this issue."

No cooperation with China

But Taiwan has made clear on several occasions that it will not work with China in the dispute over the Senkaku Islands.

The reason lies in the history of both countries. After losing the civil war to Mao Zedong's communists in the 1940s, the government of the Republic of China, which had previously ruled the mainland, fled to Taiwan. In 1971, the Chinese seat at the United Nations held by Taiwan was taken over by the People's Republic of China. Since then, Taiwan has faced increasing international isolation. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province of China. Under these circumstances, Taiwan's government has ruled out collaboration with China on territorial disputes.

To solve the disputes, Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou in August 2012 called for a peace initiative for the East China Sea and urged all parties to put the sovereignty issue aside and work together to find a peaceful solution. Ma also proposed setting up a mechanism to jointly exploit the natural resources there.

Tan-sun Chen Photo: Bi-Whei Chiu
Tan-sun Chen believes Tawain is being ignoredImage: Bi-Whei Chiu

Stepping on toes

But neither China nor Japan nor the US has yet paid much attention to Ma's proposal. Taiwan is simply being ignored, according to Tan-sun Chen, former Taiwanese foreign minister and currently member of parliament for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) party. "When the international media talk about the conflict in the East China Sea, they talk about Japan and China, as if Taiwan played no role in this matter," Chen said. "Our current government cannot make its point clear, because it doesn't want to step on China's toes."

The island dispute shows the true face of the KMT party, according to Chen. With its pro-Chinese policies, the government is willing to sacrifice Taiwan's sovereignty, he said, urging a greater role for Taiwan in international negotiations: "If the DPP returns to power in two years, we are determined to show a tougher stance on this issue."