Flashpoints | Diplomacy | East Asia

Taiwan President Asserts Sovereignty Over Disputed Islands Claimed by Japan and China

Tsai Ing-wen reiterated Taiwan’s claim over the Diaoyutai/Senkakus after opposition politicians pushed her to respond to a Japanese move to change their administrative name.

Nick Aspinwall
Taiwan President Asserts Sovereignty Over Disputed Islands Claimed by Japan and China

In this Sept. 25, 2012 photo, ROC Coast Guard Administration vessels exchange water cannon fire with their Japanese counterparts in a fishing dispute near the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands.

Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

Taiwan this week found itself ensnared in a flareup of a long territorial dispute between itself, Japan, and China over a stretch of uninhabited islands – called Diaoyutai by Taiwan and China and Senkaku by Japan – after a Japanese local government moved to change the islands’ administrative designation.

Japan’s Ishigaki city assembly recently announced a plan to change the islands’ administrative zone and, on Monday, voted to change the administrative area’s name from Tonoshiro to Tonoshiro Senkaku, drawing a backlash in Taiwan.

The island chain, which lies between Okinawa and the northeast coast of Taiwan, is surrounded by fishing grounds and studies have shown the area could contain significant oil deposits. The competing claims by Japan and China have led to frequent spikes in tension between the two countries, most notably in 2012, when the Japanese government purchased three of the islands from their private owner, leading to massive anti-Japanese demonstrations in China.

For Taiwan, the latest dispute has sandwiched President Tsai Ing-wen between the desire of her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to strengthen ties with Japan and the urging of Taiwanese officials, mostly in the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, for her administration to assert its claim to the islands.

Tsai said Wednesday the islands are part of Taiwanese territory and pledged to protect the rights of Taiwanese fishermen to operate in their surrounding waters.

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But the KMT has urged Tsai to take firmer action to assert Taiwan’s claim.

On Tuesday, a KMT councilor in Yilan, the county that administers the islands, said he and several other councilors would set up an office to reinforce Taiwan’s claim and to facilitate fishery talks between Taiwan and Japan following a fisheries agreement forged between the two in 2013.

The previous day, Yilan county magistrate Lin Zi-miao, also of the KMT, said the county government intended to change the islands’ name to Toucheng Diaoyutais pending the approval of the central government.

Hsu Kuo-yung, Taiwan’s interior minister, said Tuesday the authority to change the islands’ name falls to the county government and his ministry will approve Yilan’s decision.

Tsai’s Wednesday reiteration of Taiwan’s claim over the islands came after top KMT officials had pressured her to assert Taiwan’s sovereignty. Last week, KMT caucus whip Chiang Wan-an said his party was requesting that Tsai take part in a visit to the islands with KMT chairman Johnny Chiang, local politicians, and Taiwanese fishermen.

Chiang, the caucus whip, also said the KMT had asked Tsai to recall Frank Hsieh, Taiwan’s top representative in Japan, to discuss his talks with Japan over the Ishigaki city assembly’s move to change the administrative zone of the islands.

Taiwan’s claim over the islands is geopolitically awkward for Tsai and the DPP, which emphasizes the assertion of Taiwan’s existing sovereignty rather than the Republic of China (ROC) territorial claims seen as inalienable by the KMT. The ROC and the People’s Republic of China government in Beijing make near-parallel claims over many islands and sea features in the region, including in the hotly contested South China Sea.

Since taking office in 2016, Tsai has pushed for stronger relations with neighboring countries to decrease Taiwan’s dependence on China. Her New Southbound Policy, which targets economic and cultural relations with South and Southeast Asian countries, remains one of her signature policies.

Tsai has also sought improved relations with Japan, which has signaled support for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has voiced support for Taiwan’s bid for observer status at the World Health Assembly. This year, Japan for the first time explicitly stated its support for Taiwan’s WHA bid in its Diplomatic Bluebook, calling Taiwan an “extremely important partner.”

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Japan has also supported Taiwan’s inclusion in transnational trade agreements despite pressure from Beijing to sideline Taipei.

In her Wednesday press conference, Tsai said her administration had prioritized the rights of Taiwanese fishermen to operate in the area without Japanese obstruction. She also said her cabinet has ordered the Coast Guard to ensure the interests and safety of fishermen near the islands.

Tsai also commented on the increased frequency of Chinese military planes buzzing Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, along with U.S. military vessels nearing Taiwan’s maritime border, saying the cross-strait situation will continue to become more complex.