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September 23, 2017

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Dance of words beats sword dance in Tiaoyutais dispute

The China Post--The Executive Yuan yesterday reiterated the Republic of China's sovereignty over the Tiaoyutai Islands and said that it rejects the Japanese government's "so-called purchase" of the islands from a Japan-recognized private owner. The Executive Yuan described the deal as invalid and illegal. The Foreign Ministry asked Taiwan's representative to Japan to return "in the shortest possible time" after it expressed Taiwan's "stern protest" against Japan's decision.

The mainland Chinese government rejected Japan's move along similar lines, and also reiterated its sovereignty of the disputed territory. It warned Tokyo against "playing with fire" with regard to the Tiaoyutai issue.

Strong words, however, apparently failed to fully satisfy the public in both Taiwan and the mainland.

Mainland netizens criticized Beijing for its weak response against an increasing assertive Japan on the Tiaoyutai issue. Some called for the mainland government to put money where its mouth is and send battleships to the Tiaoyutais

Back home, President Ma Ying-jeou's trip to Pengjia Islet was widely ridiculed as a quixotic attempt to assert the R.O.C.'s sovereignty over the Tiaoyutais. Some local pundits suggested that the president should visit Tiaoyutai Island itself. Opposition politicians including Democratic Progressive Party leader Su Tseng-cheng urged Ma to get tough on the issue.

The common sentiment behind these hard-line opinions is that Taiwan and mainland China have only so far dared to fling about empty words while Japan was using real actions to lay its claim on the Tiaoyutais.

The interesting thing to note, however, is that it is actually Japan that is showing weakness. An often overlooked aspect of Japan's Tiaoyutai "nationalization" fiasco is that it is aimed neither at Taipei nor Beijing but at Tokyo, or more precisely the Governor of Tokyo Ishihara Shintaro.

Shintaro, the far-right firebrand who called the March 11 earthquake and tsunamis in 2011 an act of god to "cleanse" the Japanese people's selfishness and advocated for a nuclear-armed Japan, virtually hijacked the central government with his proposal of purchasing the Tiaoyutais with private funds, as well as his proposal to build a shelter for Japanese vessels on the islands.

Unable to restrain Shintaro, Japan's central government was forced to waste some NT$7 billion in order to "purchase" the islets and risk breaking long term regional understandings, so that it can continue to do nothing about the islands just to stop Shintaro from escalating the situation.

Compared to the attractive simplicity of hard-line populism, diplomacy is repetitive, boring and often unoriginal. But it is the predictable, proportionate and protocol-based language of diplomacy that helps solve international disputes peacefully. In other words, nations fight with words so they do not have to fight with bullets. Imagine what will happen if hard-liners in Taiwan, China and Japan all have their ways: Taiwanese president, Chinese battleship and Japanese construction all on the Tiaoyutai Island. That's a recipe for war.

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