As China and Japan set meeting to ease island dispute, Taiwan steps into fray

Japan is sending a top diplomat to China for talks. But Taiwan is now sending ships to patrol the disputed region, threatening to further complicate things.

Wally Santana/AP
A fisherman raises a Taiwanese national flag as several dozen fishing boats set out from the Suao harbor, northeastern Taiwan, to the disputed islands in the East China Sea, Monday, Sept. 24, 2012. The islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan, and have been a key part of simmering regional tensions over rival territorial claims.

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Chinese and Japanese officials are set to meet to discuss their nations' impasse over a disputed island cluster tomorrow, as Chinese ships patrol the area in an attempt to reinforce Beijing's claim to the islands. But a new party looks set to step in with its own claim to the islands: Taiwan.

Japanese Vice-Foreign Minister Chikao Kawai will head to China for two days of talks over the disputed islands, known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China, reports the BBC. Hong Kong's RTHK English news adds that Mr. Chikao is expected to meet with Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhang Zhijun tomorrow.

The BBC reports that news of the diplomatic meeting comes amid the Chinese vessels' ongoing sail-bys in the area, the latest being a pair of "marine surveillance ships" making a "rights defense" patrol, according to China's State Oceanic Administration. Japanese officials also said a Chinese fishing vessel sailed through the area. Japan lodged a protest over the vessels' visit, with a government spokesman promising that "if they enter our territorial waters, we will raise objections at the highest level." At present, no Chinese vessels are reported in the vicinity of the islands.

The Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, reports that the island dispute also led to the postponement of a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Japan. The celebration was set to take place on Sept. 27 in Beijing, but a senior official of the China-Japan Friendship Association, a Communist Party organization, told Japanese officials that the decision to postpone was "based on the current condition of the Japan-China relations."

But even as China and Japan try to resolve their dispute, a Taiwanese group is pushing ahead with its own claims to the islands, which are northeast of Taiwan.

Reuters reports that a Taiwanese flotilla of up to 100 fishing vessels, escorted by 10 Taiwan Coast Guard vessels are set to arrive at the disputed islands on Monday. The fleet, "sporting banners and large Taiwan flags," plans to sail around the islands to assert Taiwan's right to fish in the area. Reuters adds that the fishing group organizing the fleet did not rule out trying to land on the islands.

The BBC adds that hundreds of Taiwanese from right-wing parties protested in Taipei on Sunday, calling for a boycott of Japanese goods. Some called for cooperation with the mainland to resolve the dispute, even despite the long tension between China and Taiwan over Taiwan's political status. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province.

The Asahi Shimbun's Tomoyoshi Isogawa, the former chief of the paper's Chinese General Bureau, writes in a commentary that at root, the problem between Japan and China is the two countries' "inability to understand each other." Citing a recent Asahi Shimbun survey taken before the Japanese government's purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, he writes:

The only way to maintain stability in bilateral relations is to promote mutual understanding and heighten a sense of trust toward one another. However, the survey results show that this will be extremely difficult to do. ...

The gap in perception is a potential factor for friction that has the possibility to inflame passions anew.

In addition, a considerable number of Chinese respondents regard Japan as an authoritarian country. That sentiment is strong even among young people, who get much of their information on world affairs from the Internet. This is surprising.

The distorted impression of Japan seems to be directly related to the patriotic style of education that took hold of China in the 1990s.

ZDNet notes that the impasse over the islands has produced problems outside the diplomatic sphere, specifically with mapmakers like Apple, which just released a proprietary Maps app for iOS6.  ZDNet and blog "The Amazing iOS6 Maps" write that as a result, Apple has offered a novel, if impractical, solution to the territorial dispute: Duplicate the islands.  The Apple application shows two sets of islands located next to each other, one of which it identifies as the Diaoyu islands, the other as the Senkaku islands.

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