- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A senior adviser to the Taiwanese government on Wednesday downplayed the likelihood that a war will erupt in the festering dispute between Taiwan, China and Japan over a chain of tiny islands in the East China Sea.

“Nobody’s going to war over this few rocks, over these tracts of barren land,” said Stephen S.F. Chen, a former top Taiwanese diplomat in Washington, to editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

China and Taiwan agree that the islands are Chinese, though they differ on exactly what that means, said Mr. Chen, who is a senior adviser to Taiwan’s Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou.

Mr. Chen said Taiwan stands firmly with China against Japan in the dispute over the islands, which are surrounded by rich fishing waters and may lie atop large oil and gas reserves. While such a stance signals seemingly unprecedented unity between Taipei and Beijing, Mr. Chen said the two governments actually agree in only a limited way on the issue.

Both sides have long concurred that there is only one China, but the democratic island nation and the communist-ruled mainland claim to represent all of China.

“We consider ourselves Chinese,” Mr. Chen said. “We are China, the Republic of China. Beijing says it is China.”

The recent tension in the region has been capped by a wave of anti-Japanese violence inside mainland China.

Mr. Chen said Taiwan is a “peace-loving island,” and he predicted a similar backlash against Japanese goods is unlikely to occur in Taiwan because industry in the relatively tiny nation is beholden to Japanese imports. “We cannot initiate any boycott” or “embargo,” he said.

“We use persuasion,” not force or threats, Mr. Chen added in remarks highlighting Taiwan’s distinctly different approach from that taken by Beijing, which has been flexing its naval muscles by sending paramilitary marine patrol boats to the waters around the disputed islands.

This week, China went further, sending seven warships through a narrow sea passage near the Japanese island of Yonaguni, about 125 miles from the disputed islands — called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

The ships included frigates, a guided-missile destroyer, a supply ship and two submarine rescue vessels. Japanese Defense Ministry officials said the ships might have been trying to avoid an approaching typhoon but added that Tokyo is monitoring the warships’ progress closely.

The Taiwanese approach to the dispute is to start by trying to reach an agreement to exploit the island’s natural resources, officials have said.

“A country’s sovereignty cannot be divided, but natural resources can be shared,” Mr. Ma said recently.

Mr. Chen said Japan recently agreed to reopen talks on fishing rights with Taiwan in November. The talks have been stalled and dormant for three years.

Japan would hate to be facing on two fronts, facing the mainland, facing us,” Mr. Chen said, “That is why they have agreed to resume the talks.”