Watching the recent developments across Asia, one cannot help but wonder where the grownups went.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visits Dokdo (known as Takeshima in Japan) and demands that the Japanese emperor apologize for colonial rule of Korea. In response, Japanese observers start discussing a renunciation of the 1993 Yohei Kono apology for the comfort women atrocities. Meanwhile, the Japanese government allows itself to be maneuvered into nationalizing ownership of three of the Senkaku-Diaoyutai (釣魚台) Islands. Beijing asserts that Tokyo has hurt the feelings of all 1.3 billion Chinese people (quite the feat!) and then sends surveillance ships into the vicinity of the islands.
In these latest crises, the actions of each government seem to be driven, in large part, by an outpouring of visceral nationalism. Each government’s crisis resolution proposal seems to go something like this: “Recognize my claim or else.” Sure, Tokyo’s agreement to purchase the Senkakus was actually meant to freeze escalation, but Beijing and Taipei seem unwilling or unable to recognize that fact.
Yet with regional tensions at their highest in years, Taiwan, it turns out, is trying to play the adult in the room. Taiwan has, as a matter of course, reasserted its own claims. And Taipei’s actions have not been without bluster. On Wednesday last week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recalled its representative to Tokyo in protest at the plan to nationalize the disputed islands. The next day, Taipei invited reporters to observe a coast guard duty changeover and exercises involving the vessels’ cannons in waters near the disputed islands. Taiwan, like China and Japan, is guilty of contributing to escalating tension in the East China Sea.
However, just as notable has been President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) “East China Sea Peace Initiative.” Ma first announced the plan in a speech last month on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Republic of China-Japan peace treaty and has provided more details in the six weeks since. The five-point plan calls on the concerned parties (Taiwan, Japan and China to start) to avoid provocative acts and set disputes aside, to follow international law and establish a code of conduct, and to find ways to pursue cooperative resource development. Ma has even suggested a willingness to submit to binding international mediation.
Ma seems to understand the difficulty of launching such a peace initiative, which is exacerbated by Taiwan’s unique international status. And like his counterparts in Beijing and Tokyo, Ma faces domestic constraints as well; for one thing, he must avoid the appearance of colluding with Beijing to avoid attacks from the left (and to avoid further alienating Tokyo and frustrating Washington).
However, his guidelines, on the whole, are more sensible than idealistic. For example, the president proposes that Taipei, Beijing and Tokyo should proceed at first with bilateral consultations on topics of concern instead of engaging in immediate trilateral talks, which Ma knows would likely be a deal breaker, but which he believes can come later. (Of course, whether Taiwan could hold its own in simultaneous talks with the giants to its north and west, let alone in potential trilateral negotiations, is an open question). And Ma is similarly realistic in proposing that negotiations on maritime security be limited to the realms of law enforcement exchanges and marine rescue cooperation.
Still, even if Ma’s proposal looks good on paper, this begs the question: Will anybody listen? Beijing and Tokyo have, as of yet, failed to directly address the “East China Sea peace initiative.” With emotions running high and domestic political considerations to take into account, neither China nor Japan may at present be able to shift to more conciliatory postures — indeed, Taiwan has found this difficult as well even with Ma pushing his peace initiative. However, if tensions slowly fade, as they have during past crises, the leaders in Tokyo and Beijing may begin casting about for ways to avoid future confrontations or at least ensure that such rows do not get out of hand. Taipei’s plan, at the very least, could be a good place for them to start. And if the three interested parties in the Senkaku/Diaoyutai disputes have even a modicum of success in carrying out the peace initiative (or something similar) — certainly, a very big “if” — it could provide useful lessons for Japan and South Korea and for the South China Sea as well.
As challenging as the Asian maritime territorial disputes are, they provide Taiwan an opportunity to play a constructive role in the region. The trick is figuring out how to do so. To the extent Taipei can seize that opportunity, it will find itself a more critical player in promoting regional peace and stability in the coming years.
Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Late last month, Beijing introduced changes to school curricula in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, requiring certain subjects to be taught in Mandarin rather than Mongolian. What is Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) seeking to gain from sending this message of pernicious intent? It is possible that he is attempting cultural genocide in Inner Mongolia, but does Xi also have the same plan for the democratic, independent nation of Mongolia? The controversy emerged with the announcement by the Inner Mongolia Education Bureau on Aug. 26 that first-grade elementary-school and junior-high students would in certain subjects start learning with Chinese-language textbooks, as
There are worrying signs that China is on the brink of a major food shortage, which might trigger a strategic contest over food security and push Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), already under intense pressure, toward drastic measures, potentially spelling trouble for Taiwan and the rest of the world. China has encountered a perfect storm of disasters this year. On top of disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, torrential rains have caused catastrophic flooding in the Yangtze River basin, China’s largest agricultural region. Floodwaters are estimated to have already destroyed the crops on 6 million hectares of farmland. The situation has been
The restructuring of supply chains, particularly in the semiconductor industry, was an essential part of discussions last week between Taiwan and a US delegation led by US Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Keith Krach. It took precedent over the highly anticipated subject of bilateral trade partnerships, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) founder Morris Chang’s (張忠謀) appearance on Friday at a dinner hosted by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for Krach was a subtle indicator of this. Chang was in photographs posted by Tsai on Facebook after the dinner, but no details about their discussions were disclosed. With
On Sept. 8, at the high-profile Ketagalan security forum, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) urged countries to deal with the China challenge. She said: “It is time for like-minded countries, and democratic friends in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond, to discuss a framework to generate sustained and concerted efforts to maintain a strategic order that deters unilateral aggressive actions.” The “Taiwan model” to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic provides an alternative to China’s authoritarian way of handling it. Taiwan’s response to the health crisis has made it evident that countries across the world have much to learn from Taiwan’s best practices and if