The International Forum on Marine Peace and Sustainability hosted by the Democratic Pacific Union, National Taiwan Ocean University and several other organizations was held in Keelung on Oct. 20 and Oct. 21. Twelve papers by experts from Taiwan, Japan, China, the US, Australia, France and Indonesia were presented at the forum, which was also well attended by members of Taiwan’s diplomatic community.
The two-day conference covered many important and timely topics, and the participants analyzed and debated the issues and solutions from theoretical, historical, legal, economic and strategic perspectives.
In A Comprehensive Mapping of Conflicts in the South and East China Seas: Implications for Conflict Resolution and Regional Stability, Dennis Sandole of George Mason University provided a theoretical overview of the conflicts and the approaches to conflict resolution.
In Maritime-Dispute Resolution: Examples of Success and Failure by Australian David Falvey and Cases of International Settlement on Disputed Islands by Wong Ming-hsien (翁明賢) of Tamkang University, the speakers used cases of maritime dispute resolution as examples of both success and failure to explain requisite factors and conditions essential for successful and peaceful settlement.
Why are China and Japan sliding toward armed conflict over the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkakus in Japan — five small, uninhabited islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan?
Ironically, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) turned down then-US president Franklin Roosevelt’s offer at the 1943 Cairo Conference to return the islands to China’s control after the end of World War II.
When Japan proposed to amicably settle the dispute with Beijing in 1972 and 1978, on both occasions then-Chinese leaders Zhou Enlai (周恩來) and Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) said that they preferred to put the dispute aside and let the leaders of future generations deal with the matter.
However, history does not remain stationary. China’s perspective changed in the wake of the discovery of gas and oil, and the strategic importance of the islands has also been transformed along with China’s rise in economic and military power, as Beijing pursues maritime expansion and acquires new geo-strategic interests.
Japan’s domestic political dynamics are intertwined with its dispute with China. In September last year, the Japanese government nationalized three of the Diaoyutais in an effort to mitigate Chinaese anger and protests over then-Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara’s ploy to buy them.
The move backfired and provoked violent protests throughout China, which heightened tensions between the two countries. Since then, Chinese coast guard vessels have sailed into the waters around the Diaoyutais dozens of times and Chinese military planes have flown toward the islands almost daily to challenge Japan’s claim of sovereignty.
The escalation of the Sino-Japanese dispute risks involving the US, Japan’s key ally. Washington says that the US is neutral on the issue of sovereignty, but in reality it sides with Japan. On many occasions, US officials have emphasized that the US-Japan Defense Treaty covers the islands. Furthermore, several joint US-Japan maritime exercises in Guam and the waters around Okinawa demonstrate the determination of the allies to stop China from changing the “status quo” in the East China Sea.
Not surprisingly, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says that the Senkakus are Japan’s sovereign territory and it cannot tolerate any challenge now or in the future.
In his paper Senkaku Island Issues and Japan-China Relationship, Sadaharu Kataoka of Waseda University in Japan predicted that “a speedy resolution of the long-standing dispute” over the islands is unlikely.
Lee Chao-shing (李昭興) from National Taiwan Ocean University stated in his paper Is it Possible to Solve the Disputes in the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Peacefully? that Taiwan has the best claim to the islands, with the most geological, geographical, historical and cultural evidence in support. However, the nation has recently become pragmatic in dealing with Japan over the Diaoyutais.
Former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), founder of Democratic Pacific Union, said in her opening speech at the forum that Taiwan decided to put aside the matter of sovereignty and on April 10 signed a fisheries agreement with Japan. This is a new tack; it protects and enhances the rights of Taiwanese fishermen operating within a designated zone and extends their fishing area by 4,350km2.
In the spirit of problem-solving and peace, Lu also cited the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and called for demilitarization and the creation of marine preservation zones in the region.
Beijing is not pleased with the Taiwan-Japanese modus vivendi, nor does it welcome Lu’s proposal, as China has for years urged President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to join it in opposing Japan. Ma was compelled to say no to Beijing and emboldened to support the interests of Taiwanese fishermen, apparently due to US intervention.
It stands to reason that Beijing strongly dislikes the US meddling in its disputes with Japan and Southeast Asian states. Beijing sees the US as an outsider and a nonparty to these regional disputes, and has sought to exclude the US from participating in the conflict resolution process, but in vain. The US insists that freedom of navigation and overflight in the Asia-Pacific is vital to its national interests, and that China and its neighbors should resolve their territorial and maritime disputes peacefully without resorting to force or coercion.
US President Barack Obama’s last-minute cancelation of his trips to the APEC meeting in Indonesia and the East Asia summit in Brunei last month may have undermined the credibility of the US “pivot to Asia” to some extent. However, it is doubtful that Chinese leaders made much progress in winning the trust and goodwill of ASEAN leaders in Obama’s absence.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) was uncompromising on Beijing’s extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea as he reiterated in Bali the “indisputable rights” of China within the nine-dash line. Moreover, Li was audacious in warning countries not directly involved, including the US, Japan, Australia and India, to stay out of the disputes.
Most ASEAN members welcome the presence of external players, especially the US’ rebalancing, to offset China’s hegemony and to protect their own interests. Could and would ASEAN play a more active and stronger role to shape regional norms and help resolve the disputes in the South China Sea?
Hasjim Djalal, from Indonesia, made an interesting proposal in his paper The South China Sea in Legal Perspective. He suggested that the six ASEAN non-claimants to sovereignty in the South China Sea, including Indonesia and Singapore, act as “facilitators” to invite the four ASEAN claimants, including Philippines and Vietnam, to sit down and negotiate the matter with the two non-ASEAN claimants; Taiwan and China. Djalal called on the ASEAN chairman to take the initiative to put the “6+4+2 formula” into action.
For some reason, some ASEAN states question if Taiwan is a legitimate South China Sea participant to the regional dialogue process. Taiwan possesses and controls Itu Aba Island (Taiping Island, 太平島), the largest of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島). Moreover, during 2006 and 2007, the Democratic Progressive Party government took several measures, including the extension of Taiping Island’s airport runway, to strengthen its garrison and bolster its claim of sovereignty.
Can Taiwan play a more active role in the South China Sea and participate more effectively in the regional dialogue process? In The South China Sea Dispute: Taiwan’s Response and Challenge it Faces, Song Yann-huei (宋燕輝) of Academia Sinica attributed the nation’s problems in the South China Sea to the Ma government’s adherence to the “one China” principle and making almost identical absurd territorial claims as China has done.
For Taiwan to be a serious player and participate meaningfully in the regional dialogue, it must redefine its identity and its national interests in the South China Sea and toward ASEAN.
Taiwan should not allow China to pre-empt its participation in East and Southeast Asia issues. The two are separate international actors and their national interests are not identical. Taiwan’s territorial claim in the South China Sea should be based on facts and international law, and not on history alone. As a member of the community of democracies, Taiwan should work with other democratic nations to achieve a peaceful solution to the disputes in the East and South China seas.
Parris Chang is a professor emeritus of political science at Penn State University and chief executive of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.