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Of Boats and Moles and Saving Face

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.

Reader Comments


June 18, 2008 11:26 PM

sovereignty is not zilch! Diaoyutai belongs to China always !


June 19, 2008 2:00 AM

This series of accidents will never be ended with a nice solution. This small island belongs to China way back 18th century. When the Japanese Empire invaded Taiwan, it also annexed these small islands neraby. During WWII, America defeated Japanese and took lots of territery from Japan, but late on there territories were given back to Japan including this arguable island. China has never given away the rights for there islands. Due to the economic and military weakness, this issue has never brought into the table until recently. Tracking back the history, these territory belonged to Chinese empire in 16th century. China used to have lots of territory, but lost lots of them whenever defeated by foerign invader. Now the situation has been changed to China's favor, it has the ability to claim something such as these islands. Taiwan is also a part of China. When Taiwan tries to claim this territory, it is not just an accident. It has the backup os China. With Chinese back up, Taiwan can say what they really wants to say. There might be a conspiracy betweent Taiwan and Mainland China though it can't be confirmed at this moment. I think history will tell what's the true motivation for this protest. It's not an isolated accident.


June 19, 2008 3:45 AM

Those places could be the next middle east, thanks again to the west. When the British left middle east, it also left a big mess that continued to plague the world today.


June 19, 2008 8:56 AM

I think the Japanese should stop claiming the island and give them back to the rightul owners plus compensation and a thousand apologies for the suffering they cost to the Chinese.


June 19, 2008 9:29 AM

Another example of big dumb U.S. pretending to know everything and giving the Japanese something they never owned.


June 19, 2008 1:28 PM

Japanese needs to stop claim the ownership of the islands; so does China. The islands belong to Taiwan. Not China or Japan. Japan needs to give a formal apology to the Taiwannese and compensate the loss of the boat. The incident between Taiwan's fishing boat and Japan's coast guard collision has more to do than just saving face. If Taiwan didn't protest on this issue at this time, soon the island will be taken by Japan. That's the way Japannese always act. The protest at least convey a meesage to Japan and to the rest of the world that the ownership of the island is still an argument since both countries claim the ownership of it. So, solve the issue with peaceful talks and negotiation between both governments' officals.


June 19, 2008 7:07 PM

Taiwan is not part of China. And I don't believe we can get the island back with China's support.


June 21, 2008 12:07 PM

The comment by Alex is historically incorrect. Diaoyutai islands was under the jurisdiction of Taiwan Province. Taiwan Province is part of the nation of China. Taiwan was ceded to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) (per Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895). If Taiwan is not part of China, then Qing Dynasty could not have ceded to a foreign country. Point #2: Chiang Kai-Shek escaped (or retreated) to the Province of Taiwan after losing to Mao Ze-Dong, Chiang did not escape to another country, he retreated to a province which is part of the nation of China. Point #3: Zheng Chang-Gong (Koxinga) defeated the Dutch and regained sovereignty for Ming Dynasty, he did not invade a foreign nation but regained lost territory. Point #4: Qing Dynasty had direct and continuous jurisdiction over Taiwan (at least 200 years) until First Sino-Japanese War, and Qing Dynasty was the last imperial dynasty of China. Point 5: The majority of modern day Taiwanese are the descendants of Hakka of Fujian and Guangdong provinces, ethnically speaking, they are Chinese, culturally Chinese (including Mandarin dialect). Point #6: The descendant of Chiang Kai-shek's army are definitely Chinese. Point #7: Japan agreed to abandon all pre-1945 territories under the terms of Treaty of San Francisco (1952) and Treaty of Taipei (1952), that would include DiaoYuTai islands. The current confusion was due to the mistake (whether it was accidental or by design) of United States which 'returned' the islands to Japan in the early 1970's with the objections of both Beijing and Taipei governments. Japan is a willing participant in this case under the 'protection' of United States.

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