Taiwan Joins Fray Over Disputed Pacific Islands

On Tuesday Japan Coast Guard vessels sprayed water at fishing boats from Taiwan, which were backed by ships from Taiwan’s Coast Guard, after they approached disputed islands in the East China Sea.

  • Share
  • Read Later
The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

A Japan Coast Guard patrol ship (L) fires water cannon towards a Taiwanese fish boat, trying to make them leave from the area on Sept. 25, 2012 in Ishigaki, Okinawa, Japan

At first glance the image looks like a fire boat in the Hudson River on July 4, water cannons spraying in a celebratory display. Except the display is martial, or at least as martial as a fire hose will allow. On Tuesday Japan Coast Guard vessels sprayed water at fishing boats from Taiwan, which were backed by eight ships from Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration, after they approached disputed islands in the East China Sea.

The image of the coast guards from two U.S. allies—Taiwan and Japan—engaging in a water fight over a handful of uninhabited rocks can hardly be reassuring to Washington. Thus far China and Japan have been the chief actors in the latest flare-up over the islands, which are known as the Diaoyu in Chinese and the Senkaku in Japanese. The foreign ministers of Japan and China discussed the dispute Tuesday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, but no breakthrough was seen.

(PHOTOS: China: Island Dispute Spurs Anti-Japan Protests)

The addition of Taiwan, which also long claimed the islands, has contributed another layer of complexity to the thoroughly messy picture. China considers Taiwan a breakaway province that must eventually be reunited with the mainland and thus generally supports its claims to the Diaoyu. The conflagration between Japan and Taiwan over the islands complicates a dispute that is both worrisome for regional security and still far from a shooting war. Not unlike the Chinese protesters outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing earlier this month, who were forced by police to drop their rocks are hurl eggs and plastic water bottles instead, the coast guards around the Diaoyu Islands have thus far resorted to the mildest projectile in their arsenals.

Just as Beijing and Tokyo have domestic political considerations that make a retreat unpalatable, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has also had to look tough on territorial disputes. Although Taiwan was long occupied by Imperial Japan, relations between the two neighbors are generally far better than between Japan and China. That’s something Ma won’t want to risk by further escalating the dispute, says M. Taylor Fravel, a China expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I don’t think there is much potential, though the photos from [Tuesday] were dramatic,” he said via email. “Ma is playing mostly to a domestic audience and won’t want to damage relations with Japan.”

The skirmish Tuesday highlighted the potential for accident and miscalculation over the island chain that lies between Taiwan and Okinawa. Photos and video showed several vessels from Japan and Taiwan operating in dangerously close proximity. Last week ships from the Japan’s Coast Guard and China’s marine surveillance and fisheries administration also challenged each other without incident around the Diaoyu. The standoffs have so far been between so-called “white hulls,” coast guard, fisheries enforcement and similar agencies whose ships, typically painted white, are usually associated with stopping drug smugglers and rescuing mariners in danger. But in the Western Pacific they are often dispatched to show, or attempt to show, that a nation holds claim to a disputed island. Defense analysts say that such white-on-white standoffs can keep clashes from turning deadly, as the vessels involved are lightly armed, but they also pose risks, as their rules for engagement are often less clear than for blue-water navies.

(MORE: Anti-Japan Protests Reach Fever Pitch as Panetta Visits Beijing)

Amid this week’s official handover of China’s first aircraft carrier, a refurbished ex-Soviet vessel christened the Liaoning, Chinese military leaders have suggested the ship’s potential use in territorial disputes. “The aircraft carrier will play an important role in China’s settlement of islands disputes and defense of its maritime rights and interests,” the online edition of China’s Communist Party-run People’s Daily said Monday in a story citing Li Jie, a researcher with the China Navy Military Academy. The Liaoning’s greatest role though is probably as a talking point, an expression of China’s intent rather than it’s ability. It will be at least five years before it can conduct flight operations at sea, notes Fravel, and possibly even longer before a suitable task force of support vessels is developed. And the Diaoyu are close enough to be reached by attack aircraft stationed on Chinese air bases, making an aircraft carrier unnecessary. “I don’t think that the carrier will embolden China in this dispute,” Fravel says.

Indeed, for all the bluster directed at Japan in protests around China in recent weeks and on the waters around the islands, China has little room to escalate the conflict. The U.S. says it doesn’t take a position on the territorial dispute, but that as the islets are now administered by Japan they fall under the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty, which would trigger U.S. involvement in the event of an attack. Wang Shuo, manager editor of Caixin Media, says that reality makes armed conflict improbable. “China and Japan have at least two things in common in this hostile exchange: At home they fan up nationalism, and in the international arena no activities have exceeded the scope of previous, respective claims on sovereignty,” Wang wrote in a recent essay. “This means there is no possibility of a war in East Asia, not even remotely.” But for all sides an embarrassing retreat isn’t much more welcome, meaning the dueling patrol boats and water shows aren’t about to disappear either.

MORE: Japan Frets over U.S. Support in China Dispute

17 comments
arvay
arvay

Oh, this is rich. So who's side are we on -- Taiwan or Japan? Hey, if the Taiwanese want to assert their national interests, they need to rejoin the mainland. They are after all a province of China.

Oa Lee
Oa Lee

china cannot be one party country forever....you know that , right? see what happened to east amp; west Germany 

JohnParish
JohnParish

Help support the change in the way election campaign funds

are raised.  Stop the Super Pacs from

steering the candidates and ruling the government. 

Come march on Congress and show them that the American

Population do not want candidates to be persuaded by these Super Pacs any more.

Visit www.indiegogo.com/SuperPac

and help raise the awareness of this problem.

breindrein
breindrein

Its like kids fighting over a dirt-covered, vomit-flavoured piece of candy. Nobody actually wants it, but nobody wants to back down and be called the loser.

eternalfriendly2012
eternalfriendly2012

The only reason the tiny island now becomes a dispute because the oil reservoir is discovered around it many years ago. Before the discovery, nobody gave a dime it belongs to whom. Historically speaking, it has always been part of Chinese territory. Even in old Chinese maps, it is shown as its territory. Let's be fair--Japanese government started to act as the owner of the island only after the discovery of the oil reservoir.

Also, don't forget not long ago--during the World War II, Japan was America's #1 enemy and China was America's loyal ally.

Now, the ascending China has made the US Government to think differently--China has become an imagined rival, if not enemy, and Japan, the ever aggressive nation, suddenly becomes an ally to the US government.

Read more: http://nation.time.com/2012/09...

PaoloBernasconi
PaoloBernasconi

actually dude .. the opposite is true, Japan claimed the islands, long before any oil was matter of anything... there is no such thing as maps of China claiming the Islands and anyway, according to maritime law, the claim has to be made on the actual Islands,  Captain Cook style. Formally this was done by Japan only, therefore technically the Islands are Japanese.

Of course, with a communist China using the issue to force shut down Japanese businesses in China .. one is nt surprised of the BS is making up.

Oa Lee
Oa Lee

Cairo Declaration 1943:All the territories Japan has stolen from China, shall be restored to the ROC. 

NOT JAPAN,NOT PROC.

beowulf20
beowulf20

If we are going back to historical facts then, China would have to give up territory to Mongolia for it's territory achievements back then.  Seriously, this old territory grab towards historical figures are ludicrous just for the fact that alot of of ancient civiliations cross-owned everyone's territories.

Oa Lee
Oa Lee

Cairo Declaration 1943:All the territories Japan has stolen from China, shall be restored to the ROC. NOT JAPAN,NOT PROC.

passer_a
passer_a

Excuse me? It is about China 's national dignity, please don't and terrorism in Mongolia together, watch your language.In addition,if  your mother land suffered such a thing ,will you say that?

Peter_T
Peter_T

only 200 years since UN is formed does UN law states that historic claim can be considered for territorial dispute which Diaoyu islands are squarely part of it. Monglia was declared independent in the early 1900's and both PRC and ROC China had recognize it so no dispute there

mits
mits

Get the facts straight.

Japan had a factory there, with hundreds of people working, long before the war with China. That's why the islands were previously owned by a Japanese citizen (a friend of the owner of the factory).

Danyz
Danyz

That business failed in 1940 and the islands have been uninhabited ever since. (It had no business being there in the first place.) Please take a look at a map. Those islands are quite distant from the Japanese mainland and quite close to Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. And before Japan's 1895 war with China for the control of the Korean Peninsula, those islands were part of Taiwan, (at that time part of China) which also fell to Japanese aggression.

Japan's occupation of Korea then was quite instructive on the  methods of future Japanese occupation of sovereign nations in that  it was unelightened, brutal, and ultimately self destructive.   

Unless Japan is willing to assert its claim on these islands militarily, without whining to Uncle Sam for help, it should chalk this whole episode up as another lesson on the consequences of grandiose schemes of conquest gone awry.

Brian Greul
Brian Greul

It's sad that they can't jointly manage some rocks that at best are home to sea gulls and fish.  It's not like anyone would live there if given a choice.

Peter_T
Peter_T

China tried, Japan flatly said NO compromise, NADA, etc..

NStat
NStat

its about more than the rocks themselves