ASEAN’s historic failure last month to reach agreement on a unified approach to peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea focused attention on an asymmetrical division among its members. The list of players in the unfolding and increasingly dangerous drama is familiar, but incomplete.
There are four ASEAN claimants (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei) and five ASEAN non-claimants (Thailand, Singapore, Laos, Myanmar and Indonesia). These nine countries support a collective position that would produce a fair, peaceful, and effective dispute mechanism.
There is China, which opposes both the process and the intended result, and there is the 10th ASEAN member, non-claimant Cambodia, which hosted the meeting and presently does China’s bidding.
Then there is the US, which asserts no claim of its own except the right of free navigation for all, takes no position on the parties’ respective claims, but wants a peaceful resolution and supports the ASEAN approach toward that end.
The impasse was widely seen as a triumph for China’s obstructionist policy and a diplomatic defeat for the US, but neither outcome need be longstanding if the US acts wisely, creatively and forthrightly in its ongoing quest for regional stability. The US’ much-touted “pivot” or “rebalancing” policy toward Asia clearly needs a partial re-set on the South China Sea issue.
Enter a sixth claimant, the hitherto relatively silent Taiwan; the US’ former and possibly future ally, asserts the same sweeping maritime claims as the US’ former and potentially future adversary, the People’s Republic of China. At first blush, this has been considered a complicating factor for US diplomacy and Taiwan policy-making.
All the other four claimants reject the expansive China/Taiwan positions as baseless under the UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). Though Taipei’s claims coincide with China’s because of their shared pre-1949 history, it has not endorsed or emulated Beijing’s militant stance in enforcing them.
Even rhetorically, it has been less assertive regarding its claims than it has in its dispute with Japan over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台群島) — known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan. Nor, however, has it been willing so far to line up with the multilateral approach proposed by ASEAN.
For its part, Washington, while supporting ASEAN multilateralism, has given Taiwan a pass on taking the same principled position so as to avoid annoying Beijing. That was unsound advice even before the summit fiasco and, given China’s increasing aggressiveness, it is time now for the US and Taiwan to line up their policies with ASEAN’s approach.
Both China and Taiwan are excluded from membership in ASEAN — China because of its geographical remoteness from the region and Taiwan because of its political remoteness from China, but Taiwan is uniquely situated to set a positive international example for its powerful protagonist across the Taiwan Strait. It has done so in the past in other areas.
During the SARS, HIV/AIDS, Asian flu and other pandemics, Taiwan’s candor and international cooperation were exemplary, while Beijing delayed, deceived and obfuscated.
Taiwan actively participates in the Proliferation Security Initiative, along with almost 100 other countries, while China boycotts it and instead fosters nuclear and missile proliferation.