Taiwan enters island fray, but China and Japan shrug

Boats from China and Japan chased each other around a set of disputed islets, setting off a diplomatic crisis. But when Taiwan entered the fray, neither side seemed to care.

An aerial view shows a Japan Coast Guard patrol ship, fishing boats from Taiwan and Taiwan's Coast Guard vessel sailing side by side near Uotsuri island (top), a part of the disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan, Diaoyu in China, and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan, in this September 25 photo.

If it were another country, Taiwan would be in hot diplomatic water.

The government in Taipei said last week it wanted to be a peacemaker in a sovereignty dispute involving a set of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Boats from China and Japan had chased each other around the islets they both claim, setting off mass protests in China that sent Sino-Japanese relations to a new low.

Then this week, Taiwan stopped talking about peace as 12 of its coast guard vessels escorted some 50 Taiwanese fishing boats to the islets, a sort passive-aggressive reminder of its own claim to islets that are 137 miles from Taiwan. Japan controls the islands, which it calls the Senkakus, and sprayed water cannons at Taiwan’s boats to keep them away.

But instead of setting off a diplomatic crisis, no one appears to be taking Taiwan too seriously – at least not yet.

As far as China is concerned Taiwan is still part of China even though a Nationalist Party set up a rival government in Taipei after losing the Chinese civil war to the Communists in the 1940s. Beijing believes it will capture Taiwan someday even though the two sides are now self-ruled. By that logic any new territory Taiwan locks in would eventually go to China anyway.

At the same time, Japan and Taiwan can hardly live without each other. The former World War II colonizer is today one of Taiwan’s top five sources of tourism. Common Taiwanese take fashion, food, and shopping cues from peers in Tokyo while a strong contingent of conservative Japanese lawmakers who dislike communist China embraces Taiwan as a friendly fellow democracy.

“Japan is probably the only country in the world that attaches strategic importance to Taiwan,” says Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow with the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies.

But Taiwan’s leadership neither expects to conquer the tiny islets nor broker a peace deal. President Ma Ying-jeou’s government is, instead, intent on using the issue to fulfill an often failed, 4-year-old domestic pledge: expand clout among major world nations through informal ties usually described as soft power. 

China forbids its 170-plus diplomatic allies from engaging Taiwan directly. But Taiwan may hope its idea to be a regional peacemaker will stimulate scholarly debate in the United States, putting Taipei on the map of high-level academic conferences, says Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor with Tamkang University in Taiwan. “Ma has taken at least an initiative and a moral high ground,” Mr. Huang says.

Taiwan has also avoided bashing China with heated language (letting Japan handle that) over the disputed islets, though they make separate claims. That puts the two sides in the same boat as seen from Beijing. “It embraces the one-China concept in Beijing’s eyes,” Mr. Huang adds.

That edge will make China happier, and Taiwan wealthier, when the two sides bargain over trade tariffs or investment rules. 

Making good on that pledge to expand clout matters now as President Ma Ying-jeou sees approval ratings of just 15 to 25 percent this year so far because of domestic issues such as rising prices and stubborn wages. Term limits would stop Mr. Ma from seeking a new term in 2016, but his Nationalist Party could inherit any approval problems he leaves behind.

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