Taiwan jumps into South China Sea fray

Posted on August 8, 2012


Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration stationed at Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island. (File photo/CNA)

Until recently, the government of the Taiwan-based Republic of China (ROC) had remained fairly quiet regarding heightened tensions in the South China Sea. This silence has now been broken, with important diplomatic and strategic implications for the relevant disputant nations and concerned world powers. Those who were hoping for Taipei eagerly to join a nascent anti-Beijing alliance are likely to be sorely disappointed.

Last week, James Chou, deputy director general of the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stressed that the disputed islands of the South China Sea were the “undisputed territory” of the ROC. Additionally, Chou expressed a strong desire for the ROC to take part in any multilateral mechanism in resolving the long-standing territorial impasse. He said any resolution of the conflict that did not involve the ROC would be “regrettable”.

Chou’s assertion of the “undisputed” nature of Chinese sovereignty in the area echoed the recurring message of the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China. Both the mainland-based PRC and the ROC maintain the same “nine-dotted line” claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea. It is important to note that the current official policy of both Taipei and Beijing is that there is “one China”, and both governments strongly agree on Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea. The pivotal disagreement of cross-strait relations hinges on which of the two governments is the legitimate ruler of China itself.

Even more interesting, a high-ranking government official in Taipei has recently called for a ROC-PRC economic alliance in the South China Sea. Chiu Yi, an important member of Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party and an executive in the state-owned energy company CPC, has called for open cooperation between the PRC and the ROC in extracting resources from the disputed waters: “The seabed around Taiping Island has abundant reserves of oil and natural gas … The merit would be great if a cross-strait joint development project is done.” [3]

Chiu went on to condemn Vietnam as the “greatest threat” to Chinese sovereignty in the area. Taiping Island is controlled by the ROC, and is near the center of the South China Sea. For Taiwan and mainland China to cooperate on development in the region would signal both a strategic shift in the area and a major symbolic cementing of cross-strait ties.

Improved relations between Taipei and the Beijing, strengthened by a joint position in the South China Sea, would rely heavily on the often-mercurial politics of Taiwan. While the ruling KMT has called for closer ties with the mainland, its rival Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is more wary of mainland China’s rise.

Last week DPP spokesman Lin Chun-hsien called on President (and KMT member) Ma Ying-jeou to chastise Beijing’s recent decision to garrison troops permanently in the South China Sea, saying: “Ma should condemn Beijing’s unilateral move, which jeopardized regional security, as Vietnam, the Philippines and the US have all expressed similar concerns.” [4]

The KMT, instead of condemning Beijing’s moves, has reiterated the common Chinese position. This demonstrates the important division between Taiwan’s two main political parties with regards to the PRC’s ongoing regional assertiveness.

The DPP is in favor of an official declaration of Taiwanese independence, while the KMT seeks improved ties with the mainland and eventual political reunification (dependent on extensive reforms within mainland China). Where the DPP sees China’s moves in the South China Sea as a threat to Taiwanese security, the KMT sees an opportunity to protect Chinese sovereignty. This difference boils down to identity politics and two different nationalistic narratives.

The dynamic between the Taiwan’s two main political parties is of crucial importance to Asian and global security. Currently, the KMT has a hold on power, but recent elections have been closely contested. Whoever controls Taipei can set the ROC’s foreign (and cross-strait) policy, with significant impact on the regional balance of power. Taiwan’s political struggles are simultaneously affecting, and being affected by, the struggle for sovereignty in the South China Sea.

The ROC Foreign Ministry’s recently stated desire to participate in any multilateral mechanisms for resolving the maritime dispute is particularly telling. Beijing’s insistence on a strict “one China” policy has excluded Taipei from most international organizations. However, Taipei’s participation in a multilateral, negotiated settlement to the South China Sea impasse would likely strengthen the joint Chinese claims of sovereignty over key islands.

Rumors are now circulating of a grand bargain being negotiated between Taipei and Beijing. Joint PRC-ROC cooperation in the South China Sea may be exchanged for Beijing’s approval of Taipei’s participation in some international organizations. Issues of sovereignty would need to be carefully addressed in any deal, but the potential for mutual benefit is significant.

Taipei’s ruling KMT could score a major diplomatic victory, while Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over disputed areas would be strengthened. The economic windfall from extracting oil and gas reserves in the region is also a key motivation for cooperation. Most important, a major diplomatic victory brokered by the KMT might strengthen its political power in Taipei, to the long-term benefit of both the KMT itself and to leaders in mainland China.

The states that contest Chinese claims in the South China Sea must take close note of the shifting tides in Taiwan. Vietnam and the Philippines face the possibility of a de facto PRC-ROC alliance in the disputed region. Japan’s recent decision to provide a dozen sophisticated patrol boats to the Philippines touched a nationalist nerve in both mainland China and Taiwan.

Joint PRC-ROC cooperation in the South China Sea would also pose a significant challenge for US policy. The US government has been strengthening military ties with the Philippines and Vietnam with the unstated aim of containing Chinese ambitions in the area. Meanwhile, Taiwan has long been a US ally. If Chinese nationalism remains politically ascendant in Taiwan, and a joint PRC-ROC alliance is formed in the South China Sea, the US will find itself in a very awkward position.

The South China Sea remains a potential flashpoint for major conflict. Nationalistic sentiments, historical animosity, the thirst for energy resources, and geopolitical interests have fermented into a potent brew. Taipei is entering the fray with the expectation of key diplomatic, economic and political benefits. Open calls for PRC-ROC cooperation in the region serve as a reminder for all concerned states to expect the unexpected.

1. South China Sea claim reiterated, Taipei Times, August 1, 2012.
2. Taiwan wants to join code of conduct discussion over South China Sea, Focus Taiwan, July 31, 2012.
3. Rivals China, Taiwan, may pair up on South China Sea project, The Asahi Shimbun, July 27, 2012.
4. Assert sovereignty over disputed islands: DPP, Taipei Times, July 27, 2012.

Brendan P O’Reilly

Posted in: Economy, Politics