TAIPEI--Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara's inflammatory proposal to purchase four of the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea has now got Taiwan riled.
What surely was an accidental case of a Taiwanese patrol vessel brushing a Japan Coast Guard cutter off the islands on July 4 appears to have darker implications.
In fact, the incident threatens to cast a shadow over the friendship that has long been a hallmark of ties between Japan and Taiwan.
A fishing boat carrying three activists claiming Taiwan's sovereign rights to the islands arrived in Japanese territorial waters escorted by Taiwanese patrol vessels.
It stayed for several hours and left. Afterward, one of the Taiwanese patrol boats brushed a Japan Coat Guard vessel.
According to Taiwan's Coast Guard Administration, the fishing boat carrying the activists had departed from Shen-ao Port in northern Taiwan on July 3.
Five Taiwanese patrol boats also headed for the Senkaku Islands from nearby Keelung Port the following day.
The vessels approached to within 1.5 kilometers of Uotsurishima, the biggest of the uninhabited islands.
Japan Coast Guard officials tried to board the fishing boat, but were thwarted.
One of the Taiwanese patrol boats displayed an electronic signboard with the message, "This area is territory of the Republic of China (Taiwan)."
Meantime, a Taiwanese patrol boat brushed the starboard side of the Japan Coast Guard's Mizuki.
There was no major damage, nor injuries.
Until now, Taiwanese authorities had endeavored to stop activists from entering Japanese territorial waters so as not to dent bilateral ties.
But the policy now seems to have changed.
"We will actively protect voluntary activities by civilians," said Wang Chung-yi, deputy director general of the Coast Guard Administration.
In hindsight, June 26 provided the first inkling that Taiwan was hardening its stance on the thorny territorial issue.
A Taiwanese patrol boat entered Japanese waters around the Senkakus, saying it was monitoring the activities of Taiwanese fishermen to ensure they did not harm the coral.
The outing must have had the blessings of senior officials in Taipei as the vessel's presence could clearly be seen by Japan as a provocative action.
It was a decision that clearly was made at a level higher than Taiwan's Coast Guard Administration, sources said.
What is evident is that Japanese moves triggered these actions.
Tokyo's outspoken governor infuriated China with a recent announcement that his metropolitan government intended to purchase the islands from their Japanese owner.
Japanese lawmakers have also landed on or sailed close to the islands on multiple occasions, adding to China's fury.
In Taipei, the administration headed by President Ma Ying-jeou is paying close attention to the Japanese government's decision in March to give names to four smaller islands.
With some governing Nationalist Party members voicing a hard-line stance toward Japan over the territorial issue, the Ma administration has had to stand firm.
Taiwan's recent actions belie its endearing response to the natural disaster that befell Japan last year.
A donation drive in Taiwan after the Great East Japan Earthquake raised nearly 20 billion yen ($250 million) as relief money.
An investment accord signed between Japan and Taiwan last year proved to be the diplomatic coup that Ma was seeking to triumph in the presidential election.
Opinion polls in Taiwan, whose inhabitants largely have high regard for Japan, said bilateral ties could not be better.
However, a Ma administration insider said, "The honeymoon period since the disaster is over. The time has come to devise a new relationship."
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