In November of 2012, The Government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) released its East China Sea Initiative, in which it made a seemingly innocuous offer to all claimants of the disputed islands (Senkaku/ Diaoyutai) within the East China Sea to settle their differences in a peaceful manner. On the surface, such a proposal by the Ma Administration would seem to have little downside. Taiwan has been locked in a decades-long struggle regarding its "international space" against the People's Republic of China (PRC), and the Ma Administration has looked for ways to expand Taiwan's "diplomatic footprint" without incurring the ire of China--and spoiling what Ma sees as the improvement of ties between the two countries. By sponsoring a peace proposal for which itself is a claimant (along with Japan and the PRC), has Ma shown some political prowess by thrusting Taiwan into the international spotlight as a state not only separate from the PRC; but one that can be seen as responsible and open to dialogue, as his East China Sea proposal would seemingly suggest? Or has he actually complicated Taiwan's already difficult position in the East Asian diplomatic arena?
First, there are a few important aspects regarding the East China Islands dispute to note:
1. There are three claimant states: Japan (which currently holds administrative control over the islands), The People's Republic of China, and the Republic of China (Taiwan). The number of claimant states drops to two if one were to adhere to the PRC claim that Taiwan is actually a part of the PRC. The number of claimant states drops to one from the Japanese position, as it does not officially recognize the territorial dispute.
2. The issue of the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands is one that is dear to President Ma. In his doctoral dissertation at Harvard, Ma argued that Japan should "return" the disputed islands back to the ROC.
3. The primary argument from the Ma administration in which it bases its claims on legal ownership of the islands is rooted in his political party's ideology. The Kuomintang, or (KMT) still govern Taiwan on the principle that the party is not only the legal government of Taiwan, but the legitimate and true government of the current geographic area of the PRC as well, as Ma himself has stated in the past . Therefore, to understand the KMT claim, one must take into account territorial disputes that occurred prior to the removal of the KMT from power in China in 1949, and to see them in the context that the party does.
In order to explain why this proposal is potentially disastrous for Taiwan, let's explore some of the specifics of Taiwan's East China Sea Peace Initiative.
"The Republic of China therefore solemnly calls on all parties concerned to resolve disputes peacefully based on the UN Charter and relevant provisions in international law"
As previously stated, "all parties" include only Taiwan, Japan, and China. The official Japanese position states that the islands have been under Japanese jurisdiction since 1885, and this fact was without dispute until after 1968, which followed a United Nations report stating the possibility of significant petroleum reserves in the seas surrounding the islands. Both Taiwan and China state that under various treaties signed after World War II, the islands were to be returned to China. It should be noted that the PRC considers itself the legitimate successor to the ROC government in China, therefore all prior ROC territorial claims were inherited by the PRC in its inception in 1949. The Taiwan (KMT)-PRC basis of ownership is important to note due to the fact that the claims are based on the same identical argument of historic ownership. It is also interesting to note that the KMT is looking to base dispute resolution on the UN Charter, an organization that expelled the ROC government (and for all purposes of representation, the people of Taiwan) in 1971 in favor of the PRC as the sole representative for the state of China. Secondly, as stated prior, Japan does not officially recognize any dispute regarding ownership of the islands, and if it maintained its current position, would not agree to talks on the grounds that no dispute even exists.
"With respect to the Diaoyutai issue, the government of the Republic of China has consistently affirmed its position of “safeguarding sovereignty, shelving disputes, pursuing peace and reciprocity, and promoting joint exploration and development.”
While this statement would seem assuring upon initial examination, there are myriad areas of concern. Where Ma sees himself as offering the claimants an olive branch, Tokyo could see such an offering as a collaboration between China and Taiwan. Japan only needs to look to recent PRC behavior regarding territorial disputes in the greater South China Sea region, and how Beijing has handled such issues diplomatically. It's refusal to collectively negotiate with the Association of Southeastern Asian Nations (ASEAN) regarding territorial disputes and maritime code was done under the idea that it would only negotiate bilaterally regarding such matters, with the intent to use its economic and military means as muscle at the negotiating table, with its handling of the Scarborough Shoal territorial dispute with the Philippines as an example. If Japan elected to perform a drastic diplomatic "about-face", and accept Ma's peace talk proposal, and the PRC were to agree as well, it would likely include a cruel irony for Taiwan's leadership: A diminished role among the claimants.
The Beijing Wedge
If Japan were to show any signs of willingness to negotiate according to Ma's proposal, Beijing would be wise to seize the moment for the simple reason that it could produce a windfall of diplomatic benefits. It must be assumed that judging by Beijing's prior actions regarding both limiting Taiwan's political space in the international arena when all possible and its strong preference to negotiate bilaterally, that it would not agree to have Taiwan in such negotiations under the title of a separate claimant from the PRC. In addition, China does not even see the ROC as a separate claimant , as an official statement shows:
"The two sides (emphasis added) should handle the Diaoyu Islands dispute properly in order to ensure that bilateral relations remain on a track of healthy and stable development." said Jia, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), while meeting with former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama."
Due to the fact that both the PRC and ROC (Taiwan) base their claims on identical grounds, China sees the ROC claim as bolstering their own, and would stipulate that Taiwan be under the guise of some sort of unified banner and title (ie "Greater China") in order to maintain its historic geographic claim. It is equally as likely that President Ma would agree to these terms in some shape, as the KMT maintains in its ideology that it too is part of a "Greater China". Although the talks would likely produce little in terms of a consensus, Beijing would gain a great deal by merely sitting at the table. It's attempt to portray its "peaceful rise" would be enhanced by such talks, and its painstaking attempt to convince the world of a One China with Taiwan included would be bolstered by a unified front with Taiwan regarding their claims of the islands. Taiwan would likely be seen by many states in the region as the newest "Cambodia" to be under the thumb of Beijing. Perhaps more importantly for Taiwan, it could be seen by its long time allies, Japan and United States, as moving further into Beijing's sphere of influence and thus becoming an unreliable partner; a feeling that has already begun to creep into the minds of some American law makers .
Alternatives for Taiwan
It is understandable that Ma desires not only increased international space for Taiwan, but to protect the interests of his constituents as well (fishing, mineral rights etc), as any national leader would. Yet the calculations and philosophy behind the KMT's pursuit of diplomacy appear to be pushing Taiwan away from its traditional allies, and closer towards China. The main opposition political party to the KMT, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has taken an alternative to the Ma Peace Initiative. Michael Fonte, the Washington Liaison for the Democratic Party, says that he believes that the DPP's position was best articulated by DPP Chairman Su Tseng-chang while on a recent visit to Japan to meet with Japanese lawmakers, stating:
"The DPP holds to the position that Taiwan has sovereignty over the islands, based on the geological formation of the island chain and the historical fishing areas, but that the DPP values the Taiwan-Japan friendship deeply and fully understands that the US-Japan Alliance is a fundamental support Taiwan's security"
|DPP Chairman Su|
Fonte also states that Su has called for dialogue, negotiations over fishing rights, and joint exploration. There also appears to be a definitive change in foreign policy approach from the KMT, in that Fonte says that Su has spoken about Taiwan being "integrated into the emerging regional security architecture as well as calling, in parallel with (Japanese Prime Minister) Abe's "diamond" democratic allies concept, for a democratic alliance in the region." Although it is not likely that a DPP-led government in Taiwan would abandon and/or reverse the economic and cultural links to China that Ma has carefully cultivated; it would likely be more cautious in its approach towards dealing with China, and look to enhance the Taiwan-Japan-American partnership that has been in place for decades. Regarding the East China Sea, the DPP sees the KMT Diaoyutai-Senkaku claims as being rooted in antiqued geographic claims, and would likely weaken China's historic claims by breaking from them in favor of a Taiwan-centric historical/geographical approach if given the opportunity. While Ma's proposal is intended to give Taiwan enhanced diplomatic space in which to breathe; if the present trend continues, the likely scenario is having its space diminished, and in the process seeing its two most important allies losing trust in Taiwan's ability to separate itself from China's sphere of influence.