Two of the many advantages a state has when it adopts democracy as its form of government is choice and options. Politicians of all shapes and sizes will propose their ideals, proposals, and policy visions to the voters, and the voters in turn will decide by ballot which direction a state will take. There is perhaps no other country in which foreign policy continuously plays such a vital role in electoral politics than in Taiwan; and the evolution of the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) foreign policy approach will finally give the voters two distinctly different approaches from which they will choose from in upcoming elections over the next few years.
In many ways the South and East China Sea region in 2013 resembles 1913 Europe: A region where multiple states simultaneously grew in economic and military stature, and old rivalries and vendettas were once again brought to the world stage, in no small part fueled by nationalist sendiment. Fueled by rapid economic growth, the regional states of China, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore are all in the process of modernizing their respective military capabilities, mostly with the blessing of their citizens, as such hardware can be seen as symbols of a country's maturation, as well as tools necessary to defend and even press their respective territorial claims. It should come as no surprise that Taiwan's role within this struggle of myriad regional state actors is complex.
Although Taiwan has been steadily losing ground in its quest for de facto political recognition and international space against China, its approach to the East China Dispute presents a unique opportunity for it to show regional states, as well as the world, that it does in fact have the right to be recognized as not only a seperate state from China, but a responsible one. In Taiwan, both major political parties, the KMT and DPP have begun to crystalize their approaches in which they believe is the best route for Taiwan to take regarding the East China Sea issue; approaches that both appear to be of a larger approach to their respective foreign policy objectives.
For the KMT, the issue of the Senkaku-Diaoyutai island dispute is one that is rooted in its prior territorial control of China proper. Although it is not likely that the Ma Administration would come out and plainly state the prior fact, the reality is that the KMT supported claims over the islands are rooted in its 1947 territorial claims of greater China, Mongolia, Taiwan, the Pescadores, and the paradoxical "Nine dashed line" that appears on maps of both the PRC and ROC in which both claim nearly all of the disputed territory within the South China Sea (this line has been shortened by the PRC, as the original KMT line in 1947 was actually eleven lines).
It is under the premise of "One China" that the PRC does not openly object to Taiwan's claims on the Senkaku islands, and has even given signals to Taipei that it is willing to work with Taiwan on issuing a joint claim on the territories, overtures that have been met with interest by some government officials within the KMT, as well as a number of retired ROC military flag officers who have made similar statements about forming some type of joint claim (although the Ma Administration has recently stated that no such joint declaration will be forthcoming at this time). It is in Beijing's interest to support the ROC-backed claims of the islands for one primary reason, which is that the ROC claims are based on historical claims from the time it ruled China proper, which in Beijing's eyes lends support to its long-standing claim that there is one China. Therefore, as long as Taiwan's claims to the islands are on the basis of prior territorial control and under the form of an ROC-based government, there will not likely be overt objections from the PRC.
When looking at the position of the DPP regarding the islands, it is apparent that the party holds a much different reason on Taiwanese ownership. This author believes that the DPP cannot logically use the historical claim of the KMT for the Senkakus due to the fact that such a move would imply that it recognizes ROC sovereignty over Taiwan prior to the ROC government retreat to the island in 1949. The DPP also recognizes that the issue of the islands has become an issue that many people in Taiwan have a strong interest in. To simply state that Taiwan has no claim to the islands whatsoever could be seen as a sign of defeatism in the eyes of many voters. Instead the DPP has begun to make an alternative claim based on historic fishing rights, as well as potential continental shelf connections to the areas adjacent to the islands, with the latter being a stronger case in the eyes of international law if this were proven to be true.
While the islands themselves have been in the global headlines over the past few months, it is the direction in which Taiwan chooses to move in resolving the crisis is what will have long lasting ramifications for the country. If the Taiwanese choose to continue the KMT-led approach of using a historical territorial claim, it will continue to remain in the shadow of the PRC, whose claim is identical. In addition, Beijing could potentially push the Ma Administration to make a joint-declaration regarding the islands, a move that could have a devastating impact on Taiwan's standing in the region, as well as in the eyes of its primary security partner, the United States. Taiwan could also be seen as another "Cambodia": A state that has drifted so far into the Chinese sphere of influence that it can no longer be seen as an independent actor in the region. For Taiwan to maintain its current policy could also effect its overall security capabilities. If Washington comes to the impression that Taiwan is moving too deeply into the sphere of PRC influence, it could question the sale of advanced military platforms to Taiwan, something that has been increasingly taking place in some circles.
The DPP, however, appears to offer a much different approach in its policy towards the Senkaku-Diaoyutai island dispute. On February 3rd, in his first foreign trip as Chairman of the DPP, Su Tseng-chang visited Japan and stated that "collaborating with Beijing on the issue does not serve Taiwan's strategic interests in the region". Su also stated that while Taiwan maintains its claim of sovereignty over the islands, it wishes to find a peaceful solution with Japan over the issue. It is difficult to say how the DPP would be handling the issue if it were in control of the Taiwanese government, yet it appears to be offering a choice to the citizens of Taiwan, which is a rapproachment towards Japan, and in turn, the United States.
While neither side claims in overt tones that it is gearing its foreign policy specifically towards any one country, the writing is on the wall. In a recent conference in Washington DC regarding the Taiwan-United States relationship, the experts on the panel were in unanimous consent in stating that it would be in Taiwan's interest to avoid collaboration with China regarding the East China Sea issue. In contrast, the DPP position of offering an alternative claim towards the Senkaku islands could indirectly hurt the PRC claims, as it would shift away from the shared belief of the PRC-ROC historical claim. In addition, a Taiwan shift towards a peaceful resolution that would be brought about by engagement with Japan, would likely be welcomed by all regional states, as well as the United States. A shift in Taiwan's claims could be seen as stepping out of the shadow of the PRC, and further molding its own identity. It would be a wise decision for Taiwan to make, and a responsible one that the world would surely notice.