- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 6, 2012

The United States, which has carefully refrained from choosing sides in the simmering diplomatic row over a remote and rocky island chain in the East China Sea, needs to get more involved in the three-sided dispute or else risk it escalating, Taiwanese analysts say.

“The United States has to play the role of guarantor, to guarantee that the parties concerned in the [East China Sea] region don’t resort to war” to settle their competing claims for the islands, said Edward I-Hsin Chen, a former legislator who now teaches at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

Japan needs to be pushed,” added Yann-Huei Song of Taiwan’s Institute for European and American Studies. “Japan needs to talk to Taiwan, Japan needs to talk to China.”

The two professors, visiting Washington on a trip arranged by the Taiwan government, discussed the island dispute with editors and reporters at The Washington Times earlier this week.

The islands are claimed by Taiwan, China and Japan. The islands – known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan – are tiny, uninhabited and rocky. However, they sit astride vital shipping lanes and atop vast fishing grounds and untapped oil and gas reserves.

Sovereignty would bring with it exclusive resource development rights – the kind of prize China is seeking as it flexes its economic and strategic muscles over Asia’s vast oceans.

“The United States must increase its role as a peacekeeper,” Mr. Chen added.

He warned that an escalation of the crisis could too easily spiral into all-out war.

“Once the current conflict escalates, there may be something beyond U.S. control, and that would not be in [the] U.S. national interest,” he said.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has proposed a diplomatic initiative that would set aside disputes over sovereignty to allow the three parties to work together to tap the islands’ natural resources.

“Non-sovereignty issues are something we can reach agreement on,” Mr. Song said.

However, the United States hasn’t expressed public support of the Ma plan, the scholar said, although the proposal is backed by several of its European allies, including Britain.

“We have not heard any positive [statements of] support from the United States government,” he added.

The islands have been administered by Japan since the 1950s when the United States returned them to Tokyo’s control, although other Chinese territory the Japanese had annexed before World War II was returned to China.

The dispute over sovereignty was reignited earlier this year when Shintaro Ishihara – a fierce Japanese nationalist who was governor of Tokyo at the time – announced he would solicit funds to buy the islands and put them in a public trust. The national government quickly purchased the islands, heading off that populist maneuver.

Mr. Shintaro’s stunt prompted a fierce reaction in China where mobs attacked Japanese diplomatic facilities and businesses. China responded by deploying coast guard and non-military patrol ships to the islands to accompany its fishing vessels, which troll the islands’ waters under a deal with Tokyo.

Since then, the islands have been the site for several high-profile confrontations between Chinese and Japanese fishing boats and maritime patrol vessels.

In September, Tsai Eng-meng, a pro-China media mogul in Taiwan, underwrote sending a flotilla of 50 Taiwanese fishing vessels to the islands. The demonstration was designed to underline their rights to fish the islands’ waters, the fishermen said.

Mr. Tsai soon followed up with a call in his pro-Communist Party newspaper, the China Times, for China and Taiwan to cooperate to pursue a joint claim to the islands.

“Some countries are concerned about cooperation between Taiwan and Mainland China in dealing with sovereignty and maritime issues,” Mr. Song acknowledged.

But, he added, cooperation is necessary in areas such as “law enforcement at the lower levels.”

Such cooperation should include “a trilateral mechanism among [fisheries and law enforcement agencies of] China, Taiwan and Japan to avoid escalation of conflicts in disputed waters,” he said.

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