Written by J. Michael Cole.
If a few years ago you had asked people outside the region whether they had ever heard about the Diaoyutai islets, or the Senkakus as they are known in Japan, the likely answer would be that they had not. That this is no longer the case is in large part due to China’s territorial assertiveness — which has recently become militarized — and Japan’s equally hard-noised response to what it regards as dangerous expansionism. The world started paying attention to those rocks in the middle of the East China Sea because it was feared that the dispute could lead to a military confrontation between the two Asia competitors and perhaps even draw in the U.S., Japan’s security partner. Both sides had “historical rights” and various maps and documents to support their claims, but in the end that didn’t matter, as facts rarely matter when nationalism is involved.
The third claimant — Taiwan — doesn’t get mentioned as often in international media and at academic conferences on the subject, in large part because its stance on the issue has been much less bellicose. It briefly made the news when a flotilla of fishing and coast guard vessels were “fired upon” by the Japanese Coast Guard using water cannons, when overzealous military personnel asserted Taiwan’s claims by jotting a few Chinese characters on a Mk-82 500lb bomb carried by a F-16 aircraft, or when President Ma Ying-jeou proposed his “East China Sea Peace Initiative,” but for the most part Taiwan’s role in the dispute has received little world attention. It, too, has provided various legal documents or referenced historical fishing rights to make its case, but without the bluster, its voice was often ignored.
The main reason why Taiwan’s claims have not received as much attention is that it does not have the military resources it would need to take on Japan and/or China in order to “defend” its claimed sovereignty over the islets. On the security side, the strategic location of the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islets is one of the main reasons behind the dispute between China and Japan; however, as Japan does not threaten to invade Taiwan, whoever controls the islets has no bearing on Taiwan’s security position vis-à-vis Japan.
Perhaps even more importantly, though far less acknowledged, is the fact that unlike Chinese and Japanese nationalists, most Taiwanese couldn’t care less about the islets. Segments of the Taiwanese public paid attention when the dispute with Japan prevented Taiwanese fishermen from making a living, but the fisheries agreement signed in April 2013 by Taipei and Tokyo, after 16 long years of stalled efforts, resolved that matter. In other words, whatever interest most Taiwanese paid to the issue stemmed from practical rather than ideological considerations.
But this is not the picture you will get if you listen to the official rhetoric in Taipei or to members of President Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), both of which emphasize Taiwan’s (or the Republic of China’s) sovereignty claims over the islets. A most recent example of this was the Presidential Office’s reaction to remarks made by former president Lee Teng-hui during a visit to Tokyo, in which he stated that, in his view, the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islets are part of Japanese territory. Although Mr. Lee had made similar comments in the past, this time around the response was much more indignant.
Presidential Office spokesperson Charles I-hsin Chen led the charge by accusing Lee of “humiliating the nation” and “forfeiting its sovereignty.” KMT Legislator Wu Yu-sheng followed with claims that Mr. Lee’s comments amounted to “rebellion” and “treason.” Soon afterwards, President Ma, KMT Chairman Eric Chu, and KMT presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu all “reiterated” the ROC’s sovereignty over the islets, while KMT legislators vowed to seek amendments to the Act Governing Preferential Treatment for Retired Presidents and Vice-Presidents to deny Mr. Lee his retirement benefits as a former head of state. Meanwhile, Yok Mu-ming, chairman of the pro-unification New Party, filed a complaint against the former president at the Taiwan High Prosecutors Office.
Although no serious opinion poll has ever been conducted with the Taiwanese public to assess their views on the sovereignty claims, it is highly likely that if one were held, the response would not reflect the KMT’s position, let alone its recent indignation, on the subject. As we saw earlier, the Taiwanese will be vocal if a dispute unjustly affects people’s livelihood (and their access to delectable fish), but their response to the dispute is not nationalistic and they will never support actions that risk harming ties with Japan, a country for which many Taiwanese have a deep affinity. The few Diaoyutai-related street protests that have taken place in recent years have failed to attract large numbers of people and usually assembled pro-unification types (KMT representatives have been conspicuously absent). The majority of Taiwanese has shrugged the matter off and looked on with amusement.
The KMT’s latest response to Mr. Lee’s comments suggests that the party is once again out of touch with public sentiment, a disconnect that cost it dearly last year with the Sunflower Movement and that once again threatens to do so over a school curriculum controversy.
It is also very likely that former president Lee’s remarks provided a hoped-for distraction for the KMT, which is going through an existential crisis over its unpopular (and out-of-sync) presidential candidate, the risks of mutiny among party members and expulsion of five KMT critics, as well as a snowballing controversy over “minor” changes to educational guidelines and a bungled police handling of a recent student occupation of the Ministry of Education.
Rather than address the serious problems it faces, the KMT may be hoping to deflect public discontent onto other figures or by drawing attention to external crises — an age-old tactic among embattled politicians. However, accusations of treason by a former president and appeals to nationalistic sentiment over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islets, constitute a poor escape route for the party, as this is unlikely to have much, if any, traction among the Taiwanese public.
For better or worse, most Taiwanese simply don’t care about the contested islets.
J. Michael Cole is a senior non-resident fellow with the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, an associate researcher with the French Centre for Research Contemporary China (CEFC) and a senior member at the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, an independent think tank founded by Tsai Ing-wen in 2012. Follow him on Twitter @JMichaelCole1. Image credit: Michael Cole