President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) debating the finer points of international law make little difference to Taiwan’s status in East Asian balance-of-power relations. What difference does it make if the allied powers handed Formosa (Taiwan) over to the Republic of China (ROC) after World War II, if nobody recognizes the ROC anymore? Does it really matter that the Sino-Japanese Treaty is verified by international law, or that the Treaty of San Francisco leaves things a little bit ambiguous, when China has its own “Anti-Secession” Law to lay claim to Taiwan?
Based solely on who controls what pieces of land, Taiwan belongs to the ROC, the Diaoyutais (釣魚台) belong to Japan (who calls them the Senkaku Islands), the People’s Republic of China has the mainland and Taipei and Beijing have sovereignty over different chunks of the islands in the South China Sea. They can all lay claim to each other’s territory, but if they really want it, they will have to take it by force.
This is the big worry among military analysts who study East Asia : that disputes over small chunks of uninhabited land could lead to bigger conflicts. Even worse would be a conflict over Taiwan, where millions of people live. In a situation like this, it is imperative to have a strong military presence that deters one’s neighbors from taking advantage of perceived weakness to aggrandize their territory.
However, it seems that despite Ma’s assertions that the ROC holds ultimate sovereignty over Taiwan, the Diaoyutais and many of the islands in the South China Sea, Taiwan’s military is being hobbled while those of its neighbors are being beefed up. Why is Ma putting down Taiwan’s guns when the Asia-Pacific region looks like it could easily turn into the Wild West?
The military recently decided to punish Rear Admiral Chang Feng-chiang (張鳳強), former commander of the 168th Fleet, for straying out of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone during a major exercise. Chang apparently led his fleet toward Japan, but international law experts say that according to the ROC’s claims on the Diaoyutais, he never left national territorial waters. Regardless, he was demoted and stripped of his command allegedly because his actions alarmed the Japanese.
If the Ma administration wants to keep claiming sovereignty over the Diaoyutais, why strip one of the nation’s attack dogs of his command the instant he asserted Taiwan’s claim? And if Ma is not ready to back up his words with action, then why does he keep blowing off steam about the Diaoyutais?
His action have sent the message to Japan and China that the ROC is all bark and no bite. That is not a good message to be sending in a delicate balance-of-power situation. It invites repercussion and asks for counter-claimants to ROC territory to press their claims.
Everybody knows that Ma wants peace, but sometimes it is necessary to be strong and to show off one’s strength in order to attain it. In the animal kingdom, weakness attracts aggression — humans are not that different. By bending to Japan and China’s wills, Ma is sticking a “For Sale” sign on Taiwan’s sovereign territory.