During a visit to Pengjia Islet (彭佳嶼), about 140km from the contested Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), on Friday, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) provided details on his East China Sea peace initiative. He said he wanted to see a series of initial bilateral talks between Taiwan and Japan, Taiwan and China, and China and Japan as a basis for later trilateral talks.
This is not going to happen. Japan will not agree to trilateral talks for fear of being pincered between Taiwan and China. This means Japan is likely to only enter into bilateral talks with China and Taiwan separately. And given that China is so much more powerful than Taiwan, it is certain to concentrate on the talks with China. As a result, even though Ma initiated China’s involvement, Taiwan would only be further marginalized.
However, that is not all. This is the first time Ma has included the contentious Diaoyutai issue, which involves relations with third parties, on the cross-strait agenda, and this goes beyond the bottom line he promised he would keep to: that talks with China would deal with economic issues before they dealt with political ones, and that he would address the simpler problems first.
Not only is the Diaoyutai issue political, it is a prickly one, and talks would go ahead only if Beijing found their political basis acceptable. One could read this as the Ma administration, under considerable pressure from Beijing, trying to usher in cross-strait political talks under the guise of diplomatic discussions involving a third party, as opposed to exclusively concerning China and Taiwan. However, considering the way things are evolving, it does not look like things will go according to plan. In fact, they might have the opposite effect.
China has already replaced the so-called “1992 consensus” with the formulation “two sides, one country” (兩岸一國). If this becomes the basis for future cross-strait relations, Beijing will demand that Ma openly follow the “two sides, one country,” “one country, two areas” (一國兩區) concepts in cross-strait negotiations over the Diaoyutais. Beijing will also expect the outcome of the talks to reflect this, otherwise it will simply not sign any agreement.
In addition, China may well want to include the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) issue. This will reinforce the impression in the international community that Taipei and Beijing have already commenced talks on the Diaoyutais and the Spratlys based on “two sides, one country.” The Finlandization of Taiwan will have become an established fact. Beijing will hold up its hands and say it had nothing to do with it, but will be quite content to allow Taiwan to stand with it against Japan, ASEAN and the US.
Any talks on the Diaoyutai issue would be political talks. If Ma declares that there is no disagreement between China and Taiwan on the issue, and if he defines the cross-strait relationship as “one country, two areas,” it will mean that as soon as he commences talks on the Diaoyutais with Beijing, which advocates “two sides, one country,” it will be tantamount to declaring to the world that Taiwan has agreed to enter talks with China as an area of China.
By using a foreign relations issue as an excuse to start political talks with China, Taiwan will be faced with having to turn its back on the US, Japan and ASEAN. Ma is either walking into this with his eyes closed, in which case it is exceptional stupidity, or eyes wide open, in which case it is devious in the extreme.