Sat, Apr 18, 2015 - Page 8 News List

Alliances key to Taiwan’s future

By Joseph Tse-Hei Lee 李榭熙

The latest escalation of maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea reveals two serious problems in East Asia’s regional security system.

First, there is no viable judicial mechanism under current international law to resolve competing claims among rival nations to maritime space in the South China Sea. The recent diplomatic tensions have emerged from an ongoing conflict in which China and neighboring countries proclaim to control the sovereignty of overlapping maritime territories and waterways. Without a multilateral infrastructure to deal with conflicts among the rival claimants, the unstable situation will escalate and cause wider maritime rifts.

Second, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea not only challenges the US’ pivot to Asia, but also represents a new attempt to claim an open-ocean area under its territorial jurisdiction. This causes a widespread worry that China is seeking to rewrite the international law that governs the freedom of the seas and guarantees the freedom of navigation for vessels of all nations.

Most Southeast Asian states still find the US to be an irreplaceable ally, but the US has appeared to be quite ineffective in responding to the Chinese challenge. As China has become the largest trading partner for Southeast Asia, regional leaders are torn between the irresistible attraction of integrating their domestic economies into the Chinese market and the need to check China’s maritime ambitions and naval activities.

It should be the priority for the US to take a proactive role in managing the maritime territorial sovereignty disputes. Ensuring peace and stability in the South China Sea should encourage political moderation, ease regional tension and increase the prospect of a peaceful multilateral resolution.

One immediate action that the US ought to pursue is to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership to strengthen the loose economic and strategic ties with its Southeast Asian allies. Otherwise, regional states may have to choose between the US and China in future conflicts.

However, faced with a rising and assertive China, all is not lost for Taiwan.

President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has stressed that the nation should do more than acquire advanced weapons from abroad. He should be credited for implementing a viable geopolitical strategy that includes the consolidation of conventional military defense and deterrence, the expansion of strategic ties with the US, Japan and Southeast Asia.

Ma should also be applauded for public diplomacy across the Taiwan Strait, and the promotion of Taiwanese democratic values and practices among Chinese tourists, students and religious pilgrims. Many Chinese visitors have flocked to Taiwan to see democracy in action and experience the freedom of expression in society.

As the future of East Asia’s security is contingent upon many variables, the best insurance policy for Taiwan is to build alliances with neighboring states and to position the nation as a model of democratic transformation for China.

Joseph Tse-hei Lee is professor of history and co-director of the global Asia studies program at Pace University in New York.

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