President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was right to express his gravest concern about China’s declaration of a vast air defense identification zone in the East China Sea. Seeing no limitations to the projection of its newfound power since the 2008 global financial crisis, China has called maritime Asia an open frontier and invested in a deep-sea navy to compete with the US in the western Pacific.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) confidence in declaring the zone was based on an assumption that the US and its allies lacked the political will to confront Beijing. If the declaration went unchallenged, this would be a green light for the creation of a zone over the South China Sea, which would threaten Taiwan’s security.
Several years ago, diplomatic cables, which were revealed by WikiLeaks, showed joint efforts by China and the US to prevent Taiwan, particularly under former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), from drifting into independence. When China recognized its failure to deal with Chen’s pro-independence stance through coercive diplomacy, it turned to the US for help, undermining Chen’s referendum for the nation’s admission into the UN.
International observers have confirmed some informal cooperation between Beijing and Washington as neither side wants an independent Taiwan. China fears the effect that would have on its territorial integrity, and the US does not want to risk its diplomatic relationship with China and possibly a war. The cables demonstrated a qualitative shift in US strategy from using Taiwan to contain the rise of China towards stabilizing the triangular relationship and maintaining the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait.
In the tangled political web, everything has shifted in China’s favor. While it used economic co-optation to restrict the pro-independence force, it deliberately marginalized the nation by stopping Taiwanese participation in international organizations and by targeting its few diplomatic allies.
Ma’s policy is to expand the nation’s influence into China and play a proactive role in its transformation to stabilize cross-strait ties. However, as Taiwan drifts into a Chinese orbit, politicians need to assess the pros and cons of being closely linked to Beijing.
The Taiwan issue remains at the heart of Sino-American relations. Perceiving China as a competitor, US President Barack Obama’s pivot toward the Pacific after years of antiterrorism efforts in Central Asia and the Middle East is significant. Not only does it make Taiwan an important bargaining chip in negotiations with China, but it also offers the nation the autonomy to establish its own agenda.
Faced with the escalating maritime tensions in the East and South China seas, the best guarantee for security is to forge alliances with neighboring states to balance a rising China.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York.