Wed, May 21, 2014 - Page 8 News List

Chinese pressure creates diplomatic crisis for Taiwan

By Chang Chi-shin 張棋炘

Early this month, Beijing announced its intention to deploy a drilling rig in the South China Sea, triggering tensions with Vietnam.

Initial reports of Chinese vessels repeatedly ramming Vietnamese patrol vessels in the contested area and using water cannons against them were swiftly followed by anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam, and many factories in Binh Duong Province set up with Taiwanese investment were dragged into the unrest by association. This string of events once again demonstrates the predicament in which Taiwan finds itself, and this will only get worse in the near future.

First, Taiwan is faced with little alternative on the South China Sea issue but to side with China, which will leave it exposed to considerable international pressure. Taiwan owns two of the largest island groups in the South China Sea — the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島) and Itu Aba (Taiping Island, 太平島) — and lays claim to an area demarcated by an “11-dash line” that coincides neatly with China’s “nine-dash line.”

The US has already made known, both officially and via think tanks, that it would like the nation to relinquish this claim, and of course Taiwan is not happy about being singled out for this pressure. The more China agitates its claims in the area, the more pressure from the US Taiwan finds itself subjected to.

Ultimately, this will likely lead to the collapse of Taiwan’s original policy framework of achieving peaceful relations with China, while maintaining a pro-US stance.

Second, the question of national identity will come back to the forefront in the near future. This issue has been gestating ever since the Republic of China (ROC) established itself in Taiwan, while China became the People’s Republic of China.

Ever since then, Taiwanese have been subjected to suppression and political tutelage under the ROC government, which has been working to inculcate them with its own interpretation of history, to the extent that more people identify themselves as Chinese than as Taiwanese.

Nevertheless, the strength of China’s rise, and its demands concerning cross-strait trade, have stirred up anti-Chinese sentiment within Taiwan, sentiment that contributed to the legitimacy of the Sunflower movement.

The latest spat over claims in the South China Sea has Taiwanese in Vietnam feeling the brunt of anti-China sentiment, and it was inevitable that this would further reinforce Taiwanese consciousness. The Ministry of Economic Affairs’ attempts to clarify the distinction between coming from China and coming from Taiwan, its “rectification of the country’s name” movement, has not only emphasized that Taiwan is not China, it has also meant that Taiwanese businesspeople in Vietnam have been able to declare to the outside world that they are Taiwanese.

Yet if the issue of national identity does come back in the short term, obliging Taiwanese to make an immediate choice, then Taiwan will find itself caught between a rock and a hard place, coming under pressure from China on one side and the US on the other.

Given the uncertainty and pressure we are faced with, Taiwan needs to make the US understand our reluctance to take sides and that we are happy to comply with what it wants, as long as that does not mean that we are sacrificed in the process.

At the same time, the US should play along in terms of military sales and economic integration in Asia, by being more supportive of Taiwan and showing results before the nation can, to any practical extent, overcome the current problems, without looking overly subservient or merely acting as a buffer.

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