Taiwan Drills May Elevate Asia Sea Tensions as APEC to Meet

Posted on August 31, 2012


Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s president. Photographer: Ashley Pon/Bloomberg

Steps by Taiwan to raise its profile in East Asia’s maritime-boundary disputes threaten to escalate tensions just as the region’s leaders prepare to gather for an annual summit.

Taiwan’s coast guard plans five days of live-fire drills starting tomorrow on Taiping, one of the largest South China Sea islands, over Vietnam’s objections. Separately, President Ma Ying-jeou, whose popularity has sunk since his January re- election, unveiled a peace proposal in the East China Sea, where ire has flared between mainland China and Japan in recent weeks.

The Taiwanese moves inject a fresh element to conflicts over areas rich in oil, gas and fish that have intensified in the run-up to leadership contests in China, South Korea and Japan later this year. Along with Hong Kong, where activists sailed to Japanese-claimed islands this month, Taiwan backs Chinese claims against those of American allies Japan and the Philippines, even as it depends on the U.S. for security.

“Legislators saw that Taiwan was left out of international talks and agreements, and asked the government to show the world that Taiwan has control over this territory,” said Samuel C. Y. Ku, a professor at the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies in Taiwan. “As long as you have sovereignty you have the authority to get oil resources. If you don’t have sovereignty, then you have nothing.”

Taiwan delivered 40-millimeter anti-aircraft guns and 120- millimeter mortars to Taiping earlier this month to bolster its defenses. Vietnam’s foreign ministry last week called on Taiwan to immediately cancel the live-fire exercises.

APEC Summit
Investors have yet to signal concern that the tensions will affect the outlook for the region’s economies or corporate earnings. Japan’s Nikkei 225 Stock Average is up 3.3 percent so far this month, South Korea’s Kospi has risen 1.3 percent and Taiwan’s Taiex has gained 1.4 percent — all exceeding the MSCI Asia Pacific Index, which is down 0.3 percent.

The disputes also haven’t prevented China, Japan and South Korea from beginning talks on a preferential trade agreement in November, according to a statement on the website of China’s commerce ministry.

Taiwan’s drill is “routine” and isn’t intended to increase tensions, Foreign Ministry spokesman Steve Hsia said.

The island “is actively doing its thing to tell all the major players, ‘Look guys, I am here,’” Henry Bensurto, a Philippine official involved in South China Sea policy, said last week. “What it’s trying to do now is not consistent with playing a very positive role.”

Flag Assault
The maritime spats may spill into the 21-member Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, where Taiwan will also be represented. Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Chinese President Hu Jintao may discuss the disputes at the meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Laura del Rosario said.

Japan this week demanded an investigation after assailants in Beijing blocked a car carrying its envoy and snatched a Japanese flag off the vehicle. The incident followed competing visits to islands in the East China Sea, known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese.

“It’s best if Japan and mainland China could join with the Republic of China,” Hsia said, referring to the official name for Taiwan. “It’s in the interest of all the parties concerned to put all the disputes aside and sit down and talk” about exploring resources, he said.

Ship Collision
Taiwan imports more than 99 percent of its energy, with the cost increasing 30 percent in 2010 to $45 billion, according to the most recent data posted on the Bureau of Energy’s website. Domestic natural gas production fell by about 80 percent over the past two decades, the bureau’s statistics show.

Ma, whose approval rating fell to a low of 15 percent in July, vowed last month to never “concede a single inch” of territory to Japan after a Taiwanese coast guard vessel escorting activists with Chinese flags collided with a Japanese ship near disputed islands.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin praised the Taiwanese activists as “compatriots” carrying out a duty to defend the islands. Hsia said that Taiwan isn’t cooperating with China over the islands.

‘Tread Carefully’
“Taiwan is going to tread carefully in these disputes,” said Gary Li, head of marine and aviation forecasting at London- based Exclusive Analysis Ltd. “It doesn’t want to be seen as an ‘ally’ of Beijing, but nonetheless it can’t have escaped Taipei that any military moves they conduct, nationalists on the mainland would interpret as some form of ‘solidarity.’”

China and fellow claimants don’t officially recognize Taiwan’s government and therefore have left it out of talks on a code of conduct in the waters, said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Chiang Kai-Shek’s administration, which moved to Taiwan after losing the mainland to the Communists, drew China’s U- shaped map of the South China Sea that both Vietnam and the Philippines reject as a basis for joint development. Brunei and Malaysia also claim some of the Spratly archipelago.

Taiping, also known as Itu Aba, is the largest island in the Spratlys at 0.5 square kilometers (0.19 square mile), about the size of the Vatican City. Chiang claimed the island in 1946 and the Taipei government later established a military garrison there.

U.S. Talks
The U.S. has avoided commenting on Taiwan’s recent moves after criticizing China earlier this month for establishing a garrison on the biggest island in the Paracels, an island chain also claimed by Vietnam. While the U.S. recognized Beijing as the sole legal government of China in 1979, it is bound by law to help Taiwan maintain its defense.

Americans have held unofficial talks with Taiwan on the territorial disputes, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said at a forum in June.

“It would be fair to say that they have been very, very careful both in their public diplomacy and in their private interactions on this issue,” he said in response to a question about the possibility that Taiwan may cooperate with China in the South China Sea. “I’ll leave it at that.”


Shuttle diplomacy in the South China Sea

Tensions in the South China Sea are ratcheting upward. China and the Southeast Asian nations with competing territorial claims seem set on a collision course. Though still low, the probability of conflict is rising inexorably.

At this point, the focus should not be on resolving the competing claims, but on lowering temperatures and getting all sides to implement confidence-building measures. Only when cooler heads prevail can the claimant countries turn their attention to resolving the longer-term question of sovereignty and jurisdiction over the disputed islands and adjacent waters, whether through negotiation, adjudication, or joint development.

The forty-year history of disputes in the South China Sea has seen a steady escalation in tension punctuated by occasional conflicts that have been quickly contained. Based on the vaguely defined “nine-dash line” (reduced from eleven dashes in 1953), China claims sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands and their adjacent seas in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). On the ASEAN side are Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam, which have more modest, but nevertheless competing, claims that overlap with each other and with China.

The latest escalation in friction started with a confrontation between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal and international bids by China and Vietnam for oil exploration in areas of the South China Sea contested by the two. Efforts by the Philippines and Vietnam to get the support of their ASEAN counterparts at a recent ministerial meeting resulted in ASEAN’s inability to issue a communiqué for the first time in the organization’s 45-year history.

But thanks to shuttle diplomacy by Indonesia’s energetic Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, ASEAN emerged with a face-saving “common position” that reiterated ASEAN’s adherence to the declaration of a code of conduct and UNCLOS. ASEAN’s joint communiqué, however, still hasn’t been issued.

Later, in response to Vietnam’s approval of a maritime law in June 2012 that declared sovereignty and jurisdiction over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea, China raised the ante further by announcing steps to actively administer the disputed islands and the Macclesfield Bank, as well as 772,000 square miles of ocean within its “nine-dashed line.” Sansha, a 1.5-kilometer islet in a disputed part of the South China Sea, was declared a city and the Chinese authorities stationed a People’s Liberation Army garrison there to monitor, and if necessary defend, China’s claims over the area.

These developments merely heightened tensions and serve neither China’s broader strategic interests nor those of its Southeast Asian neighbors.

China’s recent actions in the South China Sea are likely to severely damage its ability to influence the region and the world on other more important issues. China already has few friends in the region. Unfortunately, its Southeast Asian neighbors do not see China’s actions matching its rhetoric.

By taking provocative actions in the South China Sea themselves, Vietnam and the Philippines are not altogether blameless. They don’t need reminding, however, that a confrontation with China is neither in their interests nor in those of Southeast Asia.

Finally, the growing risk of conflict is not in the interest of the global community, especially for countries that rely on peaceful passage through the South China Sea and notably those on the Pacific Rim. The global economy, already suffering from myriad challenges, cannot afford yet another layer of uncertainty.

Certainly, the potential costs of conflict for the region and the world far outweigh any potential economic benefits contained in the seabed of the South China Sea — much of which is unknown in any case. Rather than the availability of hydrocarbons and fisheries, the South China Sea dispute is now being increasingly driven by domestic public opinion that is fueled by military lobbies and strong nationalist sentiments.

Stepping back from the brink is in everyone’s interests. But this has to be done in a way that builds mutual trust and confidence. The escalating tit-for-tat dynamic between China and the two ASEAN claimants —Vietnam and the Philippines — must be reversed. It will involve a carefully choreographed unwinding of present positions in a way that satisfies their respective domestic constituencies.

Given his recent success at shuttle diplomacy, Marty could well be the man to thread this needle. He could shuttle between the three key claimant countries — China, Philippines and Vietnam — to broker a deal. Marty’s recently burnished credentials as a diplomat have earned him the confidence of both sides. Moreover, such an approach could satisfy Beijing’s reluctance to enter multilateral negotiations over the South China Sea while still arranging a collective stand-down.

But make no mistake, the real leadership and courage will need to come from the claimant countries themselves. Given the high stakes involved, let’s hope that such leadership is forthcoming.

Vikram Nehru

Posted in: Economy, Politics