The exclusion of Taiwan from official dialogue on the South China Sea did not leave the country totally out of the loop in talks over the region thanks to a Track II mechanism, but worries loom in the run-up to January’s presidential election.
Initiated by Indonesia in 1990, the annually held Workshop on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea has been the only venue for Track II diplomacy in which Taiwan has been engaged since 1991.
The workshop is conducted on an informal basis whereby participants from the six claimant countries of the South China Sea — Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines and Vietnam — and some other regional countries discuss issues related to the region.
A long-term participant at the workshop, Shiah Fuh-kwo (夏復國), a research fellow of the Research Center for Environmental Changes at Academia Sinica, said in a telephone interview on Friday that he worries that China might “reinstate” a policy of containment against Taiwan at the workshop if the Democratic Progressive Party wins next year’s presidential election.
That Taiwan has elicited no response from China on whether to jointly initiate a second stage of the “China and Chinese Taipei Joint-Project Southeast Asian Network for Education and Training, [or] SEA-NET” when the workshop convenes in November was a sign that its stance would depend on the election, Shiah said.
The SEA-NET was a two-year joint project operated by Taiwan and China alternatively, with each providing training courses in marine sciences for eligible students and visiting academics last year and this year.
It was the first time an initiative proposed by Taiwan was approved by the 2009 workshop since the country began actively advocating various projects in 2003.
“At the workshop, decisions are made by consensus. China always had excuses to oppose proposals initiated by Taiwan. Since 2003, we proposed initiatives every year, and none was approved due to opposition from China until 2009,” Shiah said.
He attributed the approval of the SEA-NET project to the rapprochement in cross-strait relations under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the fact that the project was jointly sponsored by China, allowing it to take credit for that.
“It was not until Ma came into office [in 2008] that China became friendly to us [Taiwan]. Before that, it allowed Taiwan’s presence at the workshop, but was not happy with us speaking or proposing initiatives,” Shiah said.
As an example, he said Taiwan was not allowed in the 2004 workshop to present the results of the SEA ONE project, an acronym for Southeast Asian Network of Ocean Education, implemented by Taiwan and attended by participants from most workshop members in 2003 in defiance of its disapproval.
On several occasions in the past, Taiwanese government officials were also present at the workshop in an unofficial capacity, sources said.
In addition to the workshop, which is the only standing Track II mechanism in existence, Taiwanese academics also participated in ad hoc international meetings on South China Sea issues called by the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, said Baushuan Ger (葛葆宣), deputy secretary-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Through the Track II channels, Taiwan has had its sovereignty claims over the region heard by others and gotten to know other claimants’ plans and policies, he said.