Unless Beijing makes an about-face on its claims to the South China Sea, it is difficult to imagine how its disputes with the five other claimants could be resolved without military confrontation. As some speakers pointed out at the conference, Beijing’s handling of the South China Sea situation could also serve as a harbinger of its future behavior on other complex territorial disputes, such as its claims to the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea, Arunachal Pradesh and Taiwan.
Although President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), in his efforts to normalize relations with China, has wisely resolved to tackle the “easy” and less contentious matters of economics before, if ever, engaging in political talks with Beijing, there is little doubt that what Chinese officials want, above all, is to initiate such negotiations on Taiwan’s future. The pressure to launch such talks could come sooner rather than later, especially if Taipei is seen to be dragging its feet (its refusal to grant Chinese academics visas to attend a conference on the subject last month, ostensibly because the timing was improper, is one such instance).
As with its claims to the South China Sea, Beijing uses “history” to buttress its claim that Taiwan is a province of China, an “inseparable part” of a future “reunified” country. That claim, furthermore, is infused with the same vague and selective uses of history, as well as intransigence, as was displayed at the conference and several other venues on the same subject. It is therefore difficult to imagine, given that Taiwan remains at the top of Beijing’s priority list, that Chinese negotiators would be any more willing to extend generosity, or be able to compromise, on the future of Taiwan.
This is a lesson that any official in the Ma administration, or even within the Democratic Progressive Party, should keep in mind as they explore the possibility of engaging in political talks with their Chinese counterparts. “Historical” claims as defined by Beijing will set the agenda, in which there will be little, if any, room for legal argumentation, international customs or the possibility of third-party arbitration. Any “benefit” granted to Taiwan as a concession during negotiations will stem from a similarly “immutable” historical consideration — “What is ours belong to us; and what is yours belongs to us, but we’re willing to share,” turning Taiwan, not unlike features in the South China Sea, into a mere commodity, leaving little room for the wishes of Taiwanese to determine the parameters for their own future.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.