The Sino-Japanese dispute over a contested group of islands in the East China Sea took another turn on Wednesday when Beijing vowed to protect fishing boats from Taiwan – which also claims the islands – from the Japanese coast guard.
The pledge highlights efforts by Beijing to seize on regional territorial disputes to strengthen its sovereignty claim over Taiwan itself, amid improving cross-Strait ties.
“Mainland government ships are already providing services to fishermen from both sides of the Strait,” said Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office. “The two sides of the strait are one family. Brothers, even if they argue at home, should stand united against aggression from outside.”
The statement follows a confrontation this week between the Japanese and Taiwanese coast guards near the Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing and Taipei.
The Taiwanese coast guard vessels were escorting fishing vessels that sailed into Japanese territorial waters off the islands to protest Japan’s recent decision to purchase them from their private Japanese owner.
While Taiwan’s claim to the Senkaku overlaps with Beijing’s, Taipei is normally low-key about it. Fifty years of Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945 have left Taiwan with a close affinity to Japan which sharply contrasts with the anti-Japanese sentiment in China. Since the Kuomintang party was defeated by the Communists in the Chinese civil war and fled to Taiwan in 1949, Beijing has claimed the island as its territory and threatened to take it with military force.
The extent to which China and Taiwan have come closer since Ma Ying-jeou became Taiwanese president in 2008 has raised some concerns regionally and in Washington about what could happen if the two began to co-operate militarily.
Analysts say any sign of Taiwan cosying up to China would affect east Asia’s security architecture as the island is unofficially part of the US alliance network in the region.
Richard Bush, a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, the US representative office in Taipei, last month said that while economic issues have led the past few years of cross-Strait talks, “there has been talk, particularly on the mainland, about moving into political and security areas”.
One Taiwanese envoy who has held unofficial talks with China said people close to the Chinese military have repeatedly suggested that the mainland and Taiwan could co-operate in areas such as search and rescue in the South China Sea.
But Taiwan is keen to avoid just this. It cherishes its de-facto independence and relies on the US for protection against China’s claim of sovereignty and Beijing’s threat to use force to reclaim it.
The US’s Taiwan Relations Act requires that America help Taiwan defend itself in the case of aggression from China. Doubts about Taipei’s loyalties could undermine support in Washington to this commitment, which is already less popular as it is a constant irritant in US ties with China.
“Taiwan does not want to be seen as co-operating with the mainland on any of these territorial disputes,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Military co-operation is very much a red line for this [Taiwan] government.”
The decision by Mr Ma to send coast guard ships into disputed waters appeared, although not unprecedented, unusual compared with past practice. Different from the opposition Democratic Progressive party, which embraces Taiwan patriotism, Mr Ma commits to a national identity focused on the Republic of China, the state which was founded in China in 1912 and continues to exist in Taiwan.
Despite the move, Taiwan moved quickly after the incident to reassure people that this did not mean it was joining with the mainland to oppose Japan.
“We will not join forces with mainland China on the Diaoyutai [Senkaku] issue, and our government and people cherish the co-operative relationship and deep friendship with Japan,” the foreign ministry said.