Taiwan Communiqué No. 73, December 1996

Tempest in an East Asian teapot

Senkaku versus Tiaoyutai

Chinese backstabbing on Tiaoyutai

During the Summer and early Fall of 1996 a small tempest raged in East Asia after Chinese extremists over-reacted to the establishment of a lighthouse on the Senkaku islands by a Japanese rightwing group.

On September 26th a flotilla of boats from Hong Kong and Taiwan converged on the islands to tear down the lighthouse. After finding their way blocked by the Japanese navy, one of the Chinese from Hong Kong, Chen Yu-hsiang, hurled himself into the water and drowned while attempting to swim to the largest of the islands.

On October 7th, several Chinese extremists from Hong Kong and Taiwan climbed onto the biggest of the eight islands and planted both the Kuomintang's and the PRC flags side-by-side. A few minutes later the flags were torn down by Japanese coastal police.

The group from Taiwan belongs to the right-wing extremist New Party (NP), which supports unification of Taiwan and China, and has cooperated with pro-PRC groups in these actions. However, the majority of Taiwanese do not support such rash action. A recent poll conducted by the DPP shows people are against any kind of cooperation with the PRC. 62 percent of respondents said the Tiaoyutai belong to "Taiwan" alone and not "China" or "China and Taiwan." Also 72 percent said they were against the confrontational methods employed by the New Party protesters.

No basis for Chinese claims to Tiaoyutai

Taiwan Communiqué comment: The claims by the Chinese that the island group is part of China is groundless: a mere glance at the map shows that the islands are some 350 km from China's coast, while the distance to Taiwan is only 180 km. Historically the Chinese claims are also without foundation: Chinese ships traditionally clung close to the Chinese coast, and never ventured out that far.

The matter thus needs to be resolved between Taiwan and Japan only. Prime consideration should be given to the rights and interests of the fishermen who fish in the area.

An interesting piece of information for the future negotiations will be that in 1944, Japan's own government decided to include the islands as part of its Taiwan colony. In 1941 the Okinawa and Taiwan colonial administrations, both under Japanese jurisdiction at the time, went to court with rival claims to the islands. In 1944 the High Court in Tokyo decided in Taiwan's favor.

James Lilley: dangers of Chinese nationalism

The episode prompted a number of excellent commentaries in the press, most notably by Mr. James R. Lilley, former US ambassador to China. In an article on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times ("Nationalism bites back", NYTimes, 24 October 1996) Mr. Lilley argued that in inciting the patriotic fervor of the masses, China's leaders try to divert attention from the inequities caused by rapid growth.

But, he states, it will be hard for the Chinese authorities to dismount this nationalist tiger: once unleashed, it causes serious backlash. He points out that there are plenty of lessons from Chinese history: the Boxer rebellion helped bring down the Manchu Dynasty, while the Red Guards destroyed much of China's leadership.

Mr. Lilley urges the Chinese to end their diatribes against Taiwan and against the contacts of other nations with Taiwan, and concludes:

"...strident nationalism will only set (China) back. For the Chinese, cooperation with neighbors, distant powers and their brothers on Taiwan should be the wave of the future. But first they must recognize the dangers of a Central Kingdom mentality."

Back to: Table of Contents

Copyright © 1996 Taiwan Communiqué