Mon, Aug 06, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Time for Taiwan to take action

By Joseph Bosco

When Japan was struck by natural and nuclear disasters last year, Taiwan contributed more aid than any other country, significantly outstripping China’s paltry donation.

Now Taiwan can show Beijing the way of responsible international behavior in the South China Sea disputes — and Washington should encourage it to do so, even at the price of annoying China. Taipei can start by doing what China academics have long urged Beijing to do: Discard the amorphous and incoherent “historical” over-reach and state the precise scope of its claims and their basis under specific provisions of UNCLOS.

As China expert Ken Lieberthal recently told a Washington conference, if all regional claimants were to declare the actual land features that support their respective maritime claims, many of the apparent conflicts would probably disappear.

Such a move by Taiwan will surely antagonize China, which will accuse it of selling out historical Chinese interests, but Beijing will do nothing more than fume, as long as Washington makes clear its own support for Taiwan’s enlightened position.

Unlike questions such as membership in international organizations or participation in the Olympics, China has already conceded that Taipei has a separate and distinct basis for asserting its South China Sea claims in its own name. Beijing did that last month when it urged Taiwan to fall in line with its posture and present a united cross-strait front on the issue. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), recently reelected but now with record low popularity, can respond that Taiwan has considered China’s argument, respectfully disagrees, and finds the views of the Southeast Asian nations more persuasive and more conducive to regional stability and Taiwan is indisputably located in the South China Sea, while continental China’s land mass is a lot farther away.

If China threatens to react with more than words, such as by trying to seize Taiping Island (太平島)which Taiwan presently occupies, the US can take the opportunity, once and for all, to discard its risk-inviting policy of strategic ambiguity and declare its unequivocal commitment to Taiwan’s defense. That will also reassure countries in the region which, while wary of getting involved in a China-US conflict, also fear US abandonment of its commitment to Asian security.

Both Vietnam, a former US enemy and the Philippines, a longstanding ally, are edging toward inviting the US back to Cold War-era military facilities from which they were ejected in past decades. Today, they see Taiwan, given its long relationship with the US, as a test case for US resolve and credibility.

It is quite possible that Beijing, after some ritualistic protest, will decide that Taiwan — and the countries of the region — have it right and that China has more to gain by cooperating and avoiding unnecessary confrontation with the international community. Many on both sides of the Pacific would breathe a sigh of relief.

Joseph Bosco served as China country desk officer in the office of the secretary of defense from 2005-2006 and is now a non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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