Another sign that Taiwanese concessions are not being met with goodwill by Beijing is the series of incidents involving Taiwanese fishermen and Chinese vessels in the contested Spratly Islands.
The chain, which is believed to have rich oil and gas deposits and high fisheries value and is claimed by Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, is seen by many military analysts as a potential flashpoint. Tensions were exacerbated in March when Manila signed a law laying claim to part of the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal, which prompted a heated response from Beijing.
The last time the Chinese navy engaged in battle over the Spratlys was in 1996, when its vessels engaged in a brief shootout with a Philippine gunboat. Since then, China has engaged in an ambitious naval modernization plan and announced in March that it could convert navy ships into patrol vessels to extend its reach over the Spratlys.
With this modernization and Beijing’s growing self-confidence, the Philippines has observed — and at times been alarmed by — a growing presence of Chinese vessels patrolling the area. As it flexes its muscles, China has also bullied fishermen from other countries in the area, including Taiwanese. This prompted Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Pan Meng-an (潘孟安) over the weekend to call on President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to protect the rights — and given the nature of the job, the lives — of Taiwanese fishermen operating in those waters.
The latest incident occurred last week, when a Chinese “sea exploration” boat harassed a Pingtung fishing boat. Chinese fishing boats were observed nearby.
So far, the Ma administration has failed to support Taiwanese fishermen and the nation’s claims over the Spratlys, ostensibly to avoid offending Beijing as it strives to improve cross-strait relations. Underscoring that point was his administration suspending a plan initiated by the former DPP government allocating NT$28 billion (US$850 million) to strengthen the Coast Guard’s presence in the area.
While it would be reckless to risk derailing a cross-strait agenda over the Spratlys, Taiwan must not be seen by Beijing to be capitulating, especially when the livelihood of Taiwanese fishermen is at stake. As in everything else, Taiwan must negotiate from a position of strength, and if this means making its presence felt in the Spratlys, then so be it.
Beyond this, if Taipei is as pragmatic as Ma would like us to think, it should be proactive in proposing mechanisms to avoid future conflict over the island chain. One way to achieve this would be to assemble all parties involved, or even create a multilateral conflict-resolution mechanism, with Taiwan as a full member. This would be a means for Ma to appease his detractors by showing that he intends to uphold the nation’s dignity, while seeking ways to defuse tensions with China and its neighbors.
To this end, the Taiwanese government could propose a summit in Taipei — or Pingtung, for that matter — inviting the foreign ministers, navy officials and fisheries organizations from all the countries involved in the dispute. Doing so would force China to prove, by participating, that it means what it says when it claims its rise is a peaceful one.
Should the Ma government fail to act as a responsible stakeholder on so minor a problem as the Spratly Islands, the rest of the world would be justified in doubting that it would deal any more peacefully on more serious matters.