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Collision Puts Taiwan and China in Same Boat

New America Media, News Analysis, George Koo Posted: Jun 19, 2008

Editors note: Japan may very well be the catalyst pushing China and Taiwan to speedier cooperation by ramming a Taiwanese fishing boat in a disputed territory. NAM contributor George Koo is a retired international business consultant.

Last week, a Japanese frigate on patrol, Koshiki, collided with Lien Ho, a deep-sea sports fishing boat from Taiwan. The incident was virtually ignored by the media in the West. Yet future developments from this provocation will bear close watching.

The incident took place in the disputed waters of a cluster of eight uninhabited islands that China and Taiwan claimed as part of Taiwan, called Diaoyu islands. Japan claimed the same islands, which they called Senkaku, as part of Okinawa.

This latest flare-up raises some disturbing questions about Japans motives. Did Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's government order this provocation or was it an initiative of a lower ranking official?

According to the Japanese Coast Guard on patrol, while they were in the process of establishing the identity of the fishing boat, the boat began to take an evasive course and ran into the frigate.

According to the Taiwanese crew, the Japanese frigate found them in their search light, hailed them and then suddenly steered the much heavier ship into the fore section of the fishing boat, causing a huge gash and sinking the boat in one hour.

Lien Hos crew of three and its 13 customers were fished from the waters by Koshiki and taken to Ishigaki, the southernmost island of the Ryukyus. The sports fishermen were shortly released, then the crew of two, and lastly the captain of the boat.

The crew upon their return asserted that their Japanese captors used harsh interrogation techniques and sleep deprivation, and demanded that they sign confessions in Japanese that they did not comprehend.

The captain, who made his living by taking deep-sea fishing enthusiasts to these islands, has never heretofore encountered the Japanese Navy. He maintained that the frigate deliberately rammed his boat.

The Diaoyu islands have been a periodic focus of vigorous dispute between China, the Chinese Diaspora and Japan ever since the United States turned Okinawa back to Japan in 1972. Then, as now, China and Taiwan were separate entities. Though both contend that the Diaoyu islands were connected to Taiwan and not Okinawa, their divided voices did not have the international clout of Japan, already considered an ally of the United States.

Japan claimed administrative control over the islands when the United States returned Okinawa to Japan. The Chinese diaspora including those living in the United States and Hong Kong have responded that the islands were administered as part of Taiwan dating back to the Qing dynasty and were ceded to Japan in the unequal treaty of 1895. When Taiwan reverted to China in 1945, the Diaoyu islands should have been part of the package except that the United States was still occupying them.

Speculations abound. Was Japans intention to test the resolve of the newly elected president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou? Harvard-educated Ma in his youth was a prominent activist for the return of the Diaoyu islands to Taiwan. He even wrote a thesis on the subject.

To complicate matters, Taiwans resident envoy in Tokyo was recalled in part to show the Taiwan governments displeasure with Japan and to express their dissatisfaction with the envoy for being soft with Tokyo. The envoy, an appointee of Mas predecessor Chen Shui-bian, has since resigned.

In a show of bravado, the Taiwan navy cutters have escorted some protest ships to the Diaoyu islands to stake their claim in response to the ramming incident. Some of the emotional responses from Taiwan have even included the suggestion of going to war with Japan. They pointed out that Russia and South Korea have been successful in resolving their disputes with Japan by forceful possession of the islands in dispute.

Realistically, Taiwan does not have the navy to take on Japan. Many Chinese are wondering why Beijing has not been more active in the dispute. Understandably, since Taiwan has not yet returned to Chinas fold, Beijing is in the awkward position of having to defer to Taiwans lead.

Meanwhile, Taiwan and China have just concluded the first successful bi-lateral meeting in which both parties agreed to begin weekend direct flights carrying up to 3,000 passengers daily across the straits in each direction and to set up representative offices in each other's territory. This is being heralded as the first step to significant warming of relations across the straits.

By becoming the adversary of an issue on which both Taiwan and China find emotional common ground, in the ultimate irony, Japan may be the catalyst pushing the two sides to even speedier and closer cooperation.

Related Articles:

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Taiwan Election: The Pursuit of Hope and Change

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