The 13th Shangri-La Dialogue that began on Friday in Singapore comes at a time of increasing tension over disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea. This escalation has highlighted the importance of a review of the nation’s policy on the area, which appears to be indistinguishable from China’s, and this weakens Taiwan’s position.
More than 400 top-ranking defense decisionmakers from 27 countries attended the three-day Asia Security Summit to address an audience of defense officials and security specialists on major security developments in the region and to arrange private meetings with their counterparts on the sidelines.
Taiwan is not a full participant at this leading security forum. As in previous years, two academics from Taiwan were invited — this year, it was former minister of national defense Andrew Yang (楊念祖) and National Chengchi University College of International Affairs professor Arthur Ding (丁樹範).
The presence of academics in the regional Track One security dialogue mechanisms that deal with South China Sea issues, like the Shangri-La Dialogue, is the best Taiwan can hope for in such mechanisms. Participation of Taiwanese government officials at the Shangri-La Dialogue was possible only once, in 2003, when China boycotted the gathering.
Last year, the invitations extended to two other Taiwanese academics to participate in the third Jakarta International Defense Dialogue, which is of paramount importance for security dialogue, were withdrawn at the last minute due to opposition from Beijing. Taiwan did not make it to the fourth annual Jakarta dialogue in March either.
China’s policy of limiting Taiwan’s diplomatic efforts by blocking its participation in international affairs was not the only factor that has led to Taiwan’s marginalization in the events that have shaped regional geopolitics. In the case of the South China Sea, over which Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, China, Malaysia and Brunei all have overlapping territorial claims, it can in part be attributed to the government’s maritime security policy being based on the principle of not offending China, to avoid any risk to progress in cross-strait relations.
President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration has been shying away from playing an active, participative role in maritime disputes involving China. It has opted to keep quiet about Beijing’s aggressive tactics in the area, in a manner distinctly different from how it has reacted to moves by other claimants. This policy has left claimants in the region in doubt about Taiwan’s stance regarding cooperation with China over the disputed islands. Despite the Ma administration’s repeated denial that it will aid China, the approach has made the parties concerned insecure.
The Philippines launched legal action against China before a UN tribunal in March, while Vietnam, which was conspicuously quiet about the move, has threatened to follow suit after China’s recent deployment of a giant oil rig near the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島). Due to its awkward position internationally, Taiwan is no match for other countries when it comes to international arbitration on the matter, but that does not mean that it has no room for making its case.
While the Philippines continues to press ahead with the legal initiative at the UN, China and ASEAN countries have begun negotiations over a code of conduct in the South China Sea. Other players, including Japan, vowed at the Singapore summit to play a more active defensive role in the region.
Maritime disputes in the South China Sea will continue to take center stage, making it imperative that Taiwan reviews its South China Sea policy. If Taiwan clarifies its claims on the “nine dash line,” it would be a starting point. It needs to differentiate its stance from that of China, which is considered to be inconsistent with international law. Doing so would also raise Taiwan’s profile in regional security affairs.
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