The relative calm in the Taiwan Strait since 2008 is one of the principal factors behind China’s increasingly aggressive stance in the South China Sea, a Vietnamese academic told a conference in Washington on Wednesday.
The two-day conference, organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), was held amid rising tensions in the South China Sea following the announcement by China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) earlier this week that it was offering nine blocks for joint operation with foreign firms in waters that Vietnam claims fall within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), prompting Hanoi to lodge an formal protest.
Speakers from China, Vietnam and the Philippines — all claimants in the South China Sea disputes — were invited to give presentations on the subject, while academics from the US, Japan and India, which do not have sovereignty claims in the area, provided external rationales for their involvement in conflict resolution.
No one from Taiwan, one of the six claimant countries, presented at the conference, although officials from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) attended.
Also present at the conference and a speaker on the second day of the event was Fu Kuen-cheng (傅崑成), a former People First Party legislator in the 1990s who now teaches at the KoGuan Law School at Shanghai Jiaotong University.
Speaking in the afternoon, Tran Truong Thuy of the Center for South China Sea Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam argued that the recent stability in the Taiwan Strait following President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) rapprochement initiative with China from 2008 was a source of new tensions in the region because better relations between Taipei and Beijing had freed up Chinese military assets.
Calling the South China Sea China’s second priority after Taiwan, Tran said improved relations had “allowed China to direct resources and attention to the South China Sea” in ways that would have been impossible prior to 2008.
On Beijing’s historical claims to the entire sea, Tran summed up its policy and opposition to a multilateral approach to conflict resolution to that of a bully.
“What is mine is mine, and what is yours is also mine, but I am willing to share,” he said of Beijing’s position.
Earlier in the day, Henry Bensurto, a former secretary-general of the Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs Secretariat under the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs, drew a direct link between rising military investment in the People’s Liberation Army and its claims on the nine-dash line area of the South China Sea and encroachment in waters within the Philippine EEZ, which culminated in the dispute over the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) earlier this year.
Manila, he said, has no choice but to respond, partly by seeking assistance from the US, with which it signed a mutual-defense treaty in the 1950s.
“Some people say that if you’re being raped, you might as well enjoy it,” he said of Chinese encroachment on the Philippines’ EEZ. “That’s not our policy.”
Such muscle flexing by China undermines the argument, made by a handful of academics last year, that giving in to China’s claims on Taiwan would ensure that China behaves as a responsible and non-belligerent actor in the future, and gives credence to the theory that “abandoning” Taiwan would only encourage Beijing to adopt a more expansionist policy.
For Tetsuo Kotani, a research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, China’s future behavior in the South China Sea could serve as an indication of how Beijing would resolve its longstanding dispute with Japan in the East China Sea.
Kotani said he had engaged in discussions with US and Japanese military officials on the possibility of holding joint US-Japan maritime surveillance in the South China Sea to help stabilize the situation.
However, he did not comment on whether Tokyo and Washington were receptive to the idea.
Assistant US Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell gave the keynote speech during lunch.
Asked by the Taipei Times whether Washington worried about the possibility of cooperation between Taiwan and China in the South China Sea disputes, Campbell guardedly said that US officials had engaged in talks — in an unofficial capacity — with their Taiwanese counterparts, adding that Taipei had been “very careful” with its language on the subject.
Campbell comments nevertheless provided confirmation that the US was liaising with Taiwan on the matter.