The recent anti-China disturbances in Vietnam have inadvertently laid bare a very weak point in the policies of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government. Its rapprochement with China has — in the eyes of many observers — blurred the distinction between Taiwan and China, leading some Vietnamese to attack Taiwan-owned companies under the assumption that they were Chinese.
It of course does not help that the government in Taipei calls itself the “Republic of China,” and Ma himself continues to emphasize that Taiwan and “the mainland” are part of “one China.”
The Vietnamese demonstrators could also be forgiven that they are confused when the main airline flying from Hanoi to Taipei is named “China Airlines,” and one of the bigger investors from Taiwan carries the title “China Steel Corp.”
So, it is clear that the confusion is primarily caused by the policies of the government in Taipei.
However, it is also important to address the immediate cause that triggered the Vietnamese protests: Chinese aggression against Vietnam.
Earlier this month, China moved a huge oil drilling platform to disputed waters near the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), well within the 321km exclusive economic zone claimed by Vietnam in accordance with the international Law of the Sea.
China made this move after a number of prior provocative moves in the region, including the declaration of an air defense identification zone over the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台群島) — known as the Senkakus in Japan — in the East China Sea in November last year, the restriction of fishing by other nations in international waters in the South China Sea in January of this year and harassment against Vietnamese fishermen and atoll groups claimed by the Philippines.
The dispatch of the oil platform was called “extremely provocative” by US Secretary of State John Kerry in a telephone call to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi (王毅) on Tuesday last week.
So, what has been the reaction from the government in Taipei to this pattern of assertiveness from the Chinese side?
On Thursday last week, Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lin (林永樂) was quoted as saying that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government had rejected a call for cooperation from Beijing, but at the same time pledged “not to take sides” in the dispute.
However, the government did not say a word on the provocative steps taken by China in sending an oil rig to the area and deploying almost 100 coast guard and People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels to “protect” the oil rig from Vietnamese ships.
The peculiar thing is that the Ma administration itself still claims the Paracels and even aligns itself with Beijing in claiming everything within the “nine-dash line,” which basically covers just about all of the South China Sea.
So, with this kind of ambivalent policy emanating from Taipei, one cannot fault other countries and people who wonder which side Taiwan is on.
What should Taipei do to clarify its position and prevent a situation in the future in which its businesses in Vietnam or any other country are mistaken for being Chinese?
It must emphasize Taiwanese identity and clearly express that there is a free and democratic Taiwan that is not associated with a repressive and expansionist People’s Republic of China.
For starters, China Airlines should be renamed to show that it is a Taiwanese airline, while state-owned companies like China Steel should proudly carry Taiwan’s name.
Chen Mei-chin is a commentator based in Washington.
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