Ma has spent the last couple of months trying to help Beijing by stirring up trouble in the South China Sea. This is a deliberate strategy, as I have noted for several years now, of irritating relations with Taiwan’s key neighbors to the south and southeast, to help impede the formation of an anti-Beijing front – even though Taiwan faces the same threat of expansion that they do. This is Ma doing what he can for China.

But China’s expansion into the Senkakus and beyond to Okinawa, coupled with Taiwan’s restless fishermen, offer countless possibilities for roiling relations with Japan. This week, in a word, Okinotori (Wiki). A few rocks that were rapidly eroding when Japan grabbed them, Wiki notes:

The waters around the reefs are potentially rich in oil and other resources and it lies in an area of potential military significance. At high tide, one area of the reefs is 1.58 square meters (17.0 square feet), roughly the size of a twin bed, and pokes just 7.4 centimetres (2.9 inches) out of the ocean. The other is 7.86 square meters (84.6 square feet), the size of a small bedroom, and rises 16 centimetres (6.3 inches), about twice as high. The entire reef consists of approximately 7.8 square kilometers (3.0 sq mi), most of which is submerged even at low tide.

According to UNCLOS these rocks, which cannot sustain human life or habitation on their own, cannot form an EEZ, although Japan has declared one based on these rocks. In 2004 China objected to the EEZ, and in the early 2000s it occasionally sent ships in to annoy the Japanese.

In case you missed that, Japan’s position on Okinotori’s ability to generate an EEZ is exactly the same as China’s in the South China Sea, something that Chinese apologists frequently point out (of course, there’s one tiny difference: Okinotori isn’t someone else’s territory). In fact, if you see a piece that begins by saying that China is behaving like everyone else, you’re in all likelihood reading an apologetic for China.

This week Japan detained a Taiwanese fishing boat in the alleged EEZ…

Japan’s coast guard detained the captain and nine crew members aboard the Tung Sheng Chi No. 16 and towed the fishing boat to Iwo Jima. The captain and crew were released Monday afternoon once the vessel’s owner paid a $54,400 security deposit with the Taiwanese government’s help.

…and the Ma government pounced. Ma himself has a lifelong interest in island claims; his thesis is on China’s claim to the Senkakus. The Ma government summoned the Japanese representative in Taiwan, and a few fishermen organized a pro forma protest outside the Japanese representative office in Taipei. The incident allowed Ma to pose as the protector of Taiwan’s sovereignty, except that nobody in Taiwan cares about Ma. Tsai Ing-wen made the right noises in response. The China Times connected the incident with the banning of potentially radioactive food from Japan….

Japan is pressuring us to lift food import restrictions. Behind this pressure lies hidden weakness. Therefore we must drive a harder bargain to achieve the best results. Providing the government can stand the pressure, Japan will makes the final concession. Therefore the new government must be decisive and resolute.

The Dong Sheng Ji 16 incident is an opportunity to discuss lifting the ban on agricultural and marine products from the nuclear disaster area, and aggressively fight for Taiwan’s fishing rights in the relevant waters. Regarding the Chong Zi Niao Reef EEZ, the new government must firmly reject the Japanese government’s spurious claims. It must dispatch ships to protect our fishing vessels. Only that will provide us with the necessary bargaining chips.

Sure enough, the Ma Administration promised that Taiwan patrol boats will protect Taiwanese fishing boats in the area.

A coast guard vessel and a ship belonging to the Council of Agriculture will depart Sunday for waters near Okinotori atoll after a Taiwanese fishing boat operating some 150 nautical miles from the atoll was seized Monday by the Japanese coast guard.

The Japanese should have ignored the fishing boat, but instead, gave the Ma Administration the excuse to go all-out in irritating relations with Tokyo. Fortunately, as the LA Times piece observed, Japan is merely waiting patiently for the Tsai Administration come onboard.

Meanwhile, Ma cranked up the rhetoric, doing absolutely everything to roil the waters…

President Ma Ying-jeou reiterated yesterday that “Okinotori is a reef,” so “the ROC government opposes Japan’s illegal expansion of jurisdiction in violation of international law.” Ma also announced that the ROC government would safeguard the freedom of its fishermen operating on the high seas in an effective way, and added that he had asked the Coast Guard Administration to send cutters to protect Taiwan fishing boats, saying “this is our fundamental right and we will not budge an inch.”

Compare that to Ma’s studied silence on the illegality of China’s illegal structures in the South China Sea. Like this last-minute dust-up with Tokyo, that too is a vicious little gift to Beijing.

Kudos to Ralph Jennings for actually balancing China’s desire to annex Taiwan with information on how Taiwanese feel about that:

Ma was elected in 2008 and must step down in May due to term limits. He made a name in office mostly for strengthening relations with China, expanding trade and tourism ties, but that effort met a public opinion backlash starting in 2014. China still hopes to unify with Taiwan despite opinion surveys in Taiwan that show a majority of people oppose that idea.

First Editor: Edward White

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by The View from Taiwan.