EDITORIAL: Ma is navigating tricky territory

Fri, Aug 17, 2012 - Page 8

As the region commemorates the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, tensions are flaring anew over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), with the arrest by Japan on Wednesday of 14 Chinese, Macanese and Hong Kong activists after five of them swam ashore to one of the disputed islets to reaffirm China’s sovereignty.

The symbolic feat, accompanied by protests by activists in front of Japan’s representative office in Taipei, has fueled speculation that President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration, which upholds the Republic of China’s (ROC) sovereignty over the islets, could work with Beijing to corner Tokyo on the issue.

Among others, the Apple Daily yesterday editorialized that Taipei’s stance could be part of a plan to irritate Japan and the US, and thereby “force” Taiwan to cooperate with China, thus undermining Taipei’s alliance with the US, its sole security guarantor, and Japan, which, despite the absence of official diplomatic relations, remains a friendly regional power.

However, such theories collapse on the shores of political reality. The pro-Diaoyutai movement in Taiwan is a peripheral political force, and whether Taiwan has or should have control over the islets is a matter that simply does not keep ordinary Taiwanese up at night. Mobilizing them in the use of force to reaffirm such claims would have even less traction with the public, especially if doing so risked damaging relations with a country that Taiwanese hold in high esteem. The Ma administration is fully aware that adventurism over the dispute, such as cooperating with China, would be frivolous in the extreme.

Furthermore, Taipei cannot ignore the fact that the Diaoyutais are at least tacitly part of the US-Japan security alliance and that Washington would likely stand by its regional ally if antagonism turned to bloodshed.

Given the longstanding ties between the US and Taiwanese military, a relationship that includes arms sales, joint training and assistance at various levels, it is even more unlikely that the Taiwanese armed forces would risk compromising all that to protect small, barren islets in the East China Sea, or suddenly side with a military with which they have no history of cooperation and which, for more than half a century, has been the principal threat to this nation.

Despite warming relations across the Taiwan Strait, it will take far more than the Diaoyutais to convince Taiwanese military officers to abandon more than six decades of friendship with their US counterparts for the sake of illusory nationalistic adventurism. Support for such an extreme volte-face simply does not exist, not within the public, and not within the armed forces. To think otherwise is to swallow Chinese propaganda.

Ma’s announcement of an East Asia peace initiative earlier this month is not a construct meant to ensnare Japan or the US, but rather an effort to give Taiwan (in Ma’s book, the ROC) a seat at the negotiating table. Far too often — and this also applies to its claims in the South China Sea — Taiwan’s voice has been ignored by other claimants. Proposing peace mechanisms, as over the Diaoyutais, or adopting a more muscular stance, as on Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島) in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), makes it more difficult to ignore Taipei.

The Ma administration has often, and deservedly so, been criticized for adopting a low-key attitude to Taiwan’s international space. However, it’s difficult to ignore the irony when Ma’s critics accuse him of both not doing enough and doing too much over sovereignty claims in the East and South China Sea, especially when his stance on those issues shows a large level of continuity with that of the previous administration.

Ma, like former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) before him, must play a tricky balancing act as he negotiates the troubled waters of Taiwan’s relations with the US, Japan and China, while seeking to set a course of its own — hence the mixed and sometimes contradictory signals and lack of a clear policy. But cooperate with China he won’t. He can’t.