Posted by: Kenji Hall on June 18, 2008
What do a sunken fishing boat and a few rocky islands inhabited by moles and ants have to do with diplomacy in Asia? A lot more than you’d think.
First, the boat. On June 10, a Taiwanese fishing boat sank after colliding with a Japanese coast guard vessel. All 16 people aboard the fishing boat were rescued but Japan’s move to temporarily detain the boat’s captain sparked a round of finger-pointing and angry rhetoric that has threatened to sour Taiwan-Japan ties. A high-ranking Japanese coast guard official has since apologized (Tokyo says both boats were equally to blame).
But the whole thing didn’t just go away for one reason: The site of the accident was near a few specks of land in the East China Sea that Japan, Taiwan and China have been quarreling over for decades. This week, following Tokyo’s response to the collision, a Taiwanese boat carrying protesters and a nine patrol-vessel escort circled the islets for two and a half hours before turning back. Japan claimed its territorial waters had been violated. Taiwan recalled its envoy to Tokyo and demanded an apology, and its coast guard is suing the captain of the Japanese coast guard vessel in a Taiwanese court.
The moles and ants are relevant here because animals and plants (Ecological Society of Japan’s Web site, in Japanese) are the only full-time inhabitants of the islands, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyutai in Chinese.
Japan took control of the islands in the early 1970s when the U.S. gave back all Japanese territories it had occupied after World War 2. But figuring out who rightfully owns the islands is a different story. You have to dial the clock back to 1895, when Tokyo annexed Taiwan and seized the islands. China says it never relinquished control and that Tokyo’s wartime defeat should have nullified its claims to overseas territories. Taiwan says the islands were unjustly seized.
That the surrounding waters also happen to be resource-rich takes this struggle up an extra notch. The area has an abundance of fish and the seabed is thought to contain natural gas deposits.
What’s to be gained from all the posturing? Except for reminding the public that these grievances haven’t been addressed, nothing productive usually comes out of these diplomatic flare-ups. They occur from time to time and then subside. Since saving face is so important in Asia there’s usually a big show of indignation on all sides before things blow over. And forget about arranging a civil chat to resolve the issue. Taiwan and China never signed a peace accord at the end of their civil war in 1949, so technically they’re still at war. Only sporadically do they convene talks, and neither would likely agree to joint negotiations with Japan unless their individual claims of ownership would be recognized. We all know the chances of that happening: zilch.