In a recent article in the Web-based journal of international affairs The Diplomat, Cain Nunns makes some interesting observations about the harm that Taipei’s claim to the South China Sea is causing to its already fragile diplomatic relations.
To briefly summarize his argument, the claim that the entire South China Sea belongs to the Republic of China (ROC) — made, according to Nunns’ count, nine times by President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration over the past 18 months — is a preposterous attachment to the ROC Constitution of 1947, which came into force before Chinese Communist Party forces had the chance to kick Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) across the Taiwan Strait.
Nunns argues that, in addition to needlessly alienating regional claimants at a time when Taipei can ill afford to do so, the claims are identical to those made by Beijing, an overlapping phenomenon that could be part of Ma’s efforts to blur the lines between Taiwan and China under “one China.”
Valid though such points may be, they fail to account for the fact that when in power from 2000 until 2008, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) maintained the claims to the contested series of islands in the South China Sea. While the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration may not have been as intransigent and insistent as Ma’s in terms of government rhetoric, it was under the DPP’s watch that Taiwan built a 1,198m airstrip, with full backing from the military, on Taiping Island (太平島), the biggest atoll in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙) chain. Upon its completion, Chen visited the island in 2008, sparking protests from Vietnam and the Philippines.
Surely, an administration that supports Taiwanese independence and in suitable conditions would have adopted a Taiwanese constitution to replace the one whose strictures no longer apply to current realities, would have immediately abandoned all claims that continued to attach Taiwan to the ROC.
That it did not points to the possibility that the claims to the contested islands — and the rich natural gas resources that may be present underneath them — exist not only for parochial purposes, but also for more practical reasons.
It is possible that Chen was using those claims as a bargaining chip with regional powers, perhaps as a means to participate in ASEAN or other regional mechanisms that served as a forum to resolve the multi-faceted conflict. Chen’s proposal of a Spratly Initiative, whereby claimants would shelve their disputes and cooperate in developing the region, points to such a strategy.
That this did not succeed is as much the result of mishandling the initiative as it is that political conditions were not ripe for such a gambit.
However, should the Ma administration’s claims to the islands also be based on pragmatic considerations, now might be a more opportune time to renew that initiative. The regional context since 2008 has changed dramatically, and while relations between Taiwan and China have, at some levels, improved, Beijing’s relations with other regional powers have deteriorated significantly.
China has repeatedly clashed with Hanoi and Manila, and even adopted uncharacteristically belligerent rhetoric on some occasions. The possibility of clashes in the South China Sea between the People’s Liberation Army Navy and those from Vietnam or the Philippines is probably the highest it has ever been. Similar adventurism by China in the East China Sea, resulting in heightened tensions with Japan and South Korea, has done little to help Beijing’s image in the region.
All of a sudden, the image of the “peaceful rise” so meticulously cultivated by China over the past decade no longer worked. The resulting apprehensions provided the perfect opening for the US to re-engage Asia, a move that while not entirely altruistic, nevertheless served the purpose of rebalancing the region at a time when a sole rising hegemon threatened to hold sway over all.
Although Taiwan has for the most part been left out of the US “pivot,” the renewed passions for multilateralism sparked by a reinvigorated US in the region could make it easier for Taipei to propose a new Spratly Initiative. Rather than abandon all claims, as Nunns proposes, Taipei could again offer joint development and exploration of the area, perhaps even through a commitment to finance a substantial share of the costs associated with the project.
Taiwan could also clearly state its intention to resolve the dispute through a multilateral framework, which would set it apart from China, which continues to oppose such a mechanism and would rather deal on a bilateral basis to ensure it has the upper hand in negotiations.
At a time when small regional powers feel threatened by an overbearing and overconfident China, those countries might be more receptive to a hand extended in friendship by Taipei. The benefits to Taiwan could be sizable, from the demonstration that it can be a responsible stakeholder for regional stability to perhaps gaining a seat at a multilateral organization. Given Taiwan’s isolation, that prospect alone would be worth the effort.
Two things are certain, though: If Taiwan simply abandons all claims to the islands, no such outcomes will ever be possible; and if the Ma administration uses the claims as a means to push Taiwan further into China’s sphere of influence, Taiwan will face the prospect of further isolation.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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