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FOCUS: Taiwan's Diaoyutai activists eye global alliance, Chinese cash.

TAIPEI, May 1 Kyodo

With political and financial patronage drying up at home, Taiwan-based activists are working on an international alliance to claim the Senkaku Islands for China.

The uninhabited islands, which lie between Taiwan and Japan's Okinawa Prefecture and are known in Taiwan and China as the Diaoyutai, are the focus of a territorial dispute between Beijing, Taipei and Tokyo.

For governments, the larger issues have been territorial control and exploiting purported oil and natural gas reserves.

For Taiwanese fishermen, however, the dispute has led to exclusion from what they claim to be ancestral fishing grounds and ongoing confrontations with Japanese patrols.

A Taiwanese activist group, the Chinese Diaoyutai Defense Association, has responded to the impasse by merging a claim of Chinese sovereignty over the islands with advocacy for the fishing industry.

Drawn from the membership of a loose, decades-old coalition known as the Alliance for the Defense of Diaoyutai, the group was registered in 2008 after its application was rejected by the government of then President Chen Shui-bian the year before.

The group claims 100 members from around the country and organizes activities in public parks and university campuses every two to three months to promote its cause.

In 2010, the group hopes to travel again to the disputed waters on chartered vessels, but given its experience with government intervention in 2009, its prospects may be poor.

In an interview with Kyodo News, association Secretary General Huang Hsi-lin said the group learned from that aborted campaign and will be more secretive in preparing expeditions.

Previous campaigns have seen Diaoyutai shore landings, arrests, an activist vessel being rammed by a Japanese patrol ship and, in 1996, the death of an activist from Hong Kong.

This year, complications are already emerging.

On April 30, Taipei announced an agreement with Tokyo to strengthen ties in various sectors after a period of tension stemming from sovereignty issues, including the Diaoyutai dispute.

Notably, the agreement includes enhanced communication on maritime security.

Meanwhile, the Ma Ying-jeou government is beginning to ask questions about the association's intentions this year, potentially threatening boat operators with vessel impoundment and cancellation of licenses.

More seriously for the association, ennui among the general public and the disappearance of local sources of funding have forced activists to turn to businesspeople in China to fund their activism.

Huang declined to name companies, locations or businesses for fear they would suffer retribution from the Chinese authorities, but he allowed his group had approached them ''reluctantly.''

Skeptical observers who sense more ideology than pragmatism in this agenda may feel vindicated by deepening ties between this group and Diaoyutai activists in China, Hong Kong and Macao, as well as overseas Chinese groups in the Americas and Europe.

Huang said the groups are working to build a formal alliance, though more talks are needed to integrate groups from outside Asia.

A conference of delegates from all locations set for Sept. 11 at the National Central Library in Taipei is expected to accelerate formation of an umbrella organization.

After that, the groups will look to June 17, 2011, the 40th anniversary of what Huang says was the day the United States granted sovereignty over the Diaoyutai group to Japan.

To mark the occasion, Huang envisages a flotilla of activists setting out from ports around the region and converging on the islands.

''We'd be beyond the control of the Taiwan authorities. Ma won't be able to do a thing if the boats are coming from everywhere, not just from Taiwan,'' he said.

The association is a marginal activist group, but it is linked to a wider network of Taiwanese organizations and individuals with more mainstream appeal and influence.

On March 27, in a statement released by the pro-unification Chinatide Association, the Chinese Diaoyutai Defense Association was named as a member of the ''Cross-Strait Peaceful Development Forum,'' a new gathering of organizations including leftist groups, Greater China nationalists, Chinese immigrant advocates and publishing companies that support unification.

Award-winning Taiwanese film director Hou Hsiao-hsien was one of the keynote speakers at the founding ceremony for the forum, whose goals include abolition of the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. law that authorizes military assistance for Taiwan, and ending U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

But Huang was adamant his group represents the interests of fishermen first, and would happily consider a deal with Tokyo that allows access for fishermen without invoking sovereignty.

''The thing is, we're not willing to tilt toward China; we have our own approach to matters. The problem is that Taiwan-Japan government relations have put the squeeze on us, the defenders of Diaoyutai, forcing us to look elsewhere for support,'' he said.

Huang repeatedly complained of pressure from the Ma government, partly because it wants to improve relations with Tokyo, but also because of close ties with Japan among legislators on both sides of the political fence.

As an example of this pressure, Huang said that just before the 2009 campaign was to be launched, Su Chi, then secretary general of Taiwan's National Security Council and a close friend of Ma, personally told the group to back off.

''Ma was concerned that (our activities) would affect cordial relations between the two countries, and he sacrificed us, the Diaoyutai defenders. So we called Brother Ma a traitor,'' he said.

In 2010, Huang added, nothing has changed.

On April 15, two Hong Kong-based Diaoyutai activists accused the Hong Kong government of political persecution after being found guilty of failing to carry appropriate safety equipment and lacking a passenger license when leaving for the Diaoyutai in May last year.

Their boat remains impounded.

Similarly, Ma's government and the security apparatus have their hands in everything, Huang said, including the local fishing authority, which he accused of using trumped-up inspections to stop vessels from leaving shore.

Huang added that, unlike former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, who at least had the ''guts'' to state the islands belong to Japan, the current president's ''cowering'' before Japan is truly ''treacherous.''
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Publication:Asian Political News
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:May 3, 2010
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