If the position of Chinese officials and academics on China’s claims in the South China Sea is any indication of how a resurgent Beijing intends to handle diplomacy, Taiwanese should be happy that political talks with Taipei have not begun — at least not in official settings.
A packed conference organized last week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on the intensifying disputes in the South China Sea showed, in no uncertain terms, that vague historical claims, rather than international law, are Beijing’s tool of choice on what it regards as its core interests.
Judging by the number of Chinese academics and journalists who showed up at the two-day event, there’s no doubt that the Chinese have every intention of hammering the message home wherever they can. On the first day of the conference, this writer shared a table with Chinese correspondents from every major Chinese media outlet, including the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-run People’s Daily and China News Service. Nearly half of the people in attendance were Chinese and almost every panel had a Chinese academic presenting Beijing’s claim. This was in sharp contrast to the not-distant past and a sign of China’s emergence as a political force to be reckoned with; politicos in Washington told me that a few years ago, one was hard pressed to find any Chinese at such conferences.
While US speakers, from Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and Senator Joe Lieberman to retired US officials and academics, went out of their way to portray the US’ relationship with China as non-belligerent, and although speakers from claimant countries in the South China Sea disputes, including Vietnam and the Philippines (Taiwan was not represented), all agreed on the need to rely on international law and arbitration to resolve the longstanding disputes, the Chinese sang a different tune. The so-called Confucian values that characterize Asian societies, one argued, meant that international law alone could not resolve the conflict.
On Beijing’s claims to the area defined by the U-shaped nine-dash line — first made by the Republic of China in 1947, and then adopted by the CCP after the Nationalists’ defeat in 1949 — Chinese speakers (including a former People First Party legislator who now teaches law in Shanghai) argued that “history,” rather than international law, should apply, though none was able, or willing, to provide clarity on what this meant, such as whether Beijing claims the entire area and its waters, or just inhabitable islets, or features, and whether international law would be used to claim the waters surrounding those features.
How far back into history one should look to substantiate sovereignty claims was also unanswered, though the Chinese speakers made it clear that their use of the historical card would be a recipe for disaster should it be used in similar fashion in other places where states are engaged in disputes over overlapping sovereignty claims.
In essence, the Chinese proposed an unwavering and relentless set of arguments that can be summed up as: “What is ours is ours; what’s yours is also ours, but we’re willing to share,” a position that bodes ill for any future attempt to resolve the root causes of the disputes. No amount of collective eye-rolling (there was a lot of that), pushback from American speakers, or questions from panelists and the audience, helped in getting the Chinese speakers to hint at the possibility of concessions.
Unless Beijing makes an about-face on its claims to the South China Sea, it is difficult to imagine how its disputes with the five other claimants could be resolved without military confrontation. As some speakers pointed out at the conference, Beijing’s handling of the South China Sea situation could also serve as a harbinger of its future behavior on other complex territorial disputes, such as its claims to the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea, Arunachal Pradesh and Taiwan.
Although President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), in his efforts to normalize relations with China, has wisely resolved to tackle the “easy” and less contentious matters of economics before, if ever, engaging in political talks with Beijing, there is little doubt that what Chinese officials want, above all, is to initiate such negotiations on Taiwan’s future. The pressure to launch such talks could come sooner rather than later, especially if Taipei is seen to be dragging its feet (its refusal to grant Chinese academics visas to attend a conference on the subject last month, ostensibly because the timing was improper, is one such instance).
As with its claims to the South China Sea, Beijing uses “history” to buttress its claim that Taiwan is a province of China, an “inseparable part” of a future “reunified” country. That claim, furthermore, is infused with the same vague and selective uses of history, as well as intransigence, as was displayed at the conference and several other venues on the same subject. It is therefore difficult to imagine, given that Taiwan remains at the top of Beijing’s priority list, that Chinese negotiators would be any more willing to extend generosity, or be able to compromise, on the future of Taiwan.
This is a lesson that any official in the Ma administration, or even within the Democratic Progressive Party, should keep in mind as they explore the possibility of engaging in political talks with their Chinese counterparts. “Historical” claims as defined by Beijing will set the agenda, in which there will be little, if any, room for legal argumentation, international customs or the possibility of third-party arbitration. Any “benefit” granted to Taiwan as a concession during negotiations will stem from a similarly “immutable” historical consideration — “What is ours belong to us; and what is yours belongs to us, but we’re willing to share,” turning Taiwan, not unlike features in the South China Sea, into a mere commodity, leaving little room for the wishes of Taiwanese to determine the parameters for their own future.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.