Taiwanese boats challenge Japan in island dispute
Sixty Taiwanese vessels faced Japanese water cannons as they entered waters near a disputed island chain claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan early Tuesday. Japan purchased the islands from a private owner last week, sparking protests in China.
A week after Japan’s purchase of the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu archipelago from a private landowner sparked protests across China, a third regional player has entered the fray.
Sixty Taiwanese coast guard and fishing boats, accompanied by patrol ships Taipei said were carrying fully armed personnel, faced Japanese water cannons early Tuesday as they entered the waters surrounding the islands, which are claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan.
This breach of what Japan considers its sovereign territory adds fuel to the debate that has already been raging between Japan and China in recent weeks over ownership of the islands. Several days of sometimes violent protests have erupted in cities across China, with Japanese firms targeted by rioters.
But Taipei also lays claim to the uninhabited islands, and is seemingly willing to back its convictions with action. Situated in the East China Sea, some 200 kilometres northeast of Taiwan and 400 kilometres west of Okinawa, Taiwan claims that it has ancestral fishing rights to the island chain.
“Taipei surely wants to show that Beijing is not the only power prepared to defend China’s honour on the subject of the islands,” says Valérie Niquet, a researcher at the Asia programme of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a French think tank. “Taiwan is taking a turn to mark its territory.”
“Taipei has always presented itself as the legitimate ruler of China,” she told FRANCE 24. “It does not recognise Beijing’s authority. So it is natural that Taiwan would consider itself as the legal ruler of the islands, which it has claimed as its own since 1971.”
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told a press conference Tuesday that Japanese authorities contacted the vessels and told them to leave.
"We have made contact with the Taiwanese authorities, and told them that they cannot enter our territorial waters," he said.
A spokesman for Taiwan's coastguard confirmed that nearly 60 boats sailed close to the islands, some coming within three nautical miles – well inside the 12-nautical-mile exclusion zone.
Japan's coastguard said all vessels left the area a few hours later.
Ownership of the islands has become an important tenet of national identity for all three claimants – and the possible presence of energy reserves in the nearby seabed adds to their allure.
Japan administers the uninhabited, but strategically well-positioned archipelago under the name Senkaku. Beijing says it has owned the islands for centuries and calls them the Diaoyu islands.
Fujimura said Japan was handling Tuesday's situation as delicately as it could.
"All in all, we must continue to take utmost caution for policing of the areas surrounding the Senkaku islands. Agencies concerned must continue to closely coordinate their actions," he said.
"Japan's position is that, in light of good Japan-Taiwan relations, we must solve the issue peacefully. We wish to respond calmly."
(FRANCE 24 with wires)