Former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui has fallen under fire from both ends of the political spectrum after publicly stating that the disputed islands in the East China Sea belong to Japan.

The uninhabited islands,  known as the Diaoyutai, the Diaoyu and the Senkaku islands, lie 140 kilometres from Taiwan and 170 kilometres from the nearest Japanese island. They are currently controlled by Tokyo but disputed by both Beijing and Taipei.

Location of the disputed islands between Taiwan and Japan. Photo: Wikicommons.

Sitting Kuomintang (KMT) president Ma Ying-jeou and opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen have both voiced their opposition to the former KMT leader’s remarks, made during a recent visit to Japan in which Lee met with Diet lawmakers and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who reportedly visited Lee in his Tokyo hotel.

On July 27, the chairman of Taiwan’s right-wing New Party, Yok Mu-ming quickly filed charges of treason against the 92-year-old over his remarks. China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency reiterated the charge in a July 29 editorial entitled “Lee Teng-hui a traitor to his homeland.”

In a 2,000-character letter to the China Times, President Ma wrote: “Former President Lee’s remarks violate historical fact, the ROC constitution and international law… [He] should take back what he said and apologise to the people of Taiwan.”

Tsai Ing-wen
DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Wikicommons.

Hung Hsiu-chu, set to represent the pro-unification KMT in the upcoming 2016 presidential elections, publicly challenged Tsai Ing-wen to state her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party’s position on the islands’ sovereignty.

Speaking at a campaign event in Taipei on July 29, Tsai said that her party’s stance on the issue “has been consistent and clear — the Diaoyutai Islands belong to Taiwan,” whereas Ma stated in his letter today that “the Diaoyutai Islands belong to the Republic of China.”

Tsai accused her opponent of “twisting the DPP’s stance based on false information,” adding that “a political party should not play such a cheap trick in a run-up to an election. It is bad for Taiwan’s political and electoral culture.”

Lee is known as the “father of Taiwan’s democracy” for his role in transitioning the island nation from an authoritarian state to a liberal democracy. As president, he presided over the country’s first democratic elections in 1996, leading his party to victory and becoming the country’s first popularly elected leader.

After resigning the KMT chairmanship in 2000, Lee campaigned actively for pro-independence candidates and the following year was expelled from the party he had previously led.

Having grown up in Taiwan during its period of Japanese administration (1895-1945), Lee has long maintained a fondness for Japanese culture and has made seven trips there since stepping down.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning journalist and scholar from Hong Kong who has reported on the city’s politics, protests, and policing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, TIME, The Guardian, The Independent, and others