Thursday, May 26, 2011

Taiwan on Tightrope as South China Sea Tensions Mount

The Asia Pacific is in subtle tumult. China has seized on perceived changing regional power equations following the financial crisis and attendant economic stagnation in the United States, and adopted a harsher and more insisting tone over its interests.

Taken aback, many regional countries have come to view China in a new, more ominous light and have moved to embrace (or re-embrace) the United States. The United States, also disturbed by China’s premature triumphalism, has been ready to reciprocate.

This dynamic is clearly evident in the escalating tensions in the South China Sea. China has adopted a more muscular approach to its claims, and worked to prevent Asean adopting a common bargaining position and to exclude the United States from the dispute. Nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines have pushed back, and sought greater cooperation with each other and support from the United States. As such, a coalition opposing China’s greater assertiveness appears to be strengthening. Ironically, one country that claims the entire South China Sea, Taiwan, is trying to avoid picking sides.

On April 19, Taiwan’s foreign minister announced that rather than the army, the more elite and amphibious warfare-ready marines would train the coast guard personnel stationed in the South China Sea. There are apparently no plans to increase personnel levels over the current 105 on Taiping Island in the Spratly group and the 162 on Pratas Island, or to upgrade their weapons systems. Switching the section of the armed forces training these coast guard personnel is clearly a modest escalation. So, why bother?

Taiwan’s approach to the issue has never been straightforward. It claimed the South China Sea when it still controlled China, based on more or less the same history with which China now asserts its claims. Taiwan occupied Taiping Island in 1946 following Japan’s withdrawal from the region. Other than an interruption from 1950 to 1956, this occupation has continued until today, despite Taiwan losing control of China. Since democratization, Taiwan’s presidents have essentially asserted sovereignty over only the territory over which the state has effective control, although the Taiwanese government continues to claim the entire South China Sea as its territory.

Taiwan’s claim is driven by important interests. Taiwan’s presence in the Pratas and Spratlys gives it a degree of strategic depth in relation to China’s submarine fleet. Taiwan is also dependent on energy imports, and the Spratlys region is said to hold large energy reserves. In addition, Taiwan has a very large fishing industry, and wants access to as much of the region’s fisheries as possible. Uniquely among the claimants, Taiwan’s China-imposed international isolation means it also has a strong interest in simply being involved in international discussions and being treated as a nation state.

Taiwan has repeatedly called for the cooperative development of the region’s resources, however, it also provoked a strong reaction from Vietnam and the Philippines when it constructed an airstrip on Taiping Island, and when former President Chen Shui-bian subsequently visited the island.

Taiwan’s relationship with China shapes its involvement to a large extent. China does not see Taiwan as a rival claimant. Quite the opposite: Taiwan’s historical and continued military presence there is seen as strengthening China’s claim, which after all claims Taiwan in its entirety. China has threatened Taiwan with war if it changes its official national borders. While China might not go as far as to attack Taiwan if it dropped its claim to the South China Sea, it would nevertheless react hysterically. In addition to this coercion, Taiwan’s stance on China’s claims to the South China Sea is complicated by Taiwan’s identity politics and economic interests in China. Moreover, Taiwan’s position in the South China Sea benefits from not having Beijing projects its considerable power and resources into pushing Taiwan out of the region.

Still, the two sides are of course distinct claimants with sometimes conflicting interests. China also blocks Taiwan’s involvement in international negotiations over the disputed region. Most importantly, Taiwan relies on the United States for security from China, and does not share China’s aim of pushing the United States out of the South China Sea or intimidating regional countries into capitulation.

Taiwan’s South China Sea policy is thus a balancing act, seeking to protect its interests there while continuing to avoid antagonizing China or the United States and its allies. China is moderating its tone in the face of the bristling regional reaction. But the fundamental conflict between China and the United States remains, and Taiwan will not be able to stay on the fence indefinitely.

East Asia Forum

By Joel Atkinson lecturer in Taiwan Studies at Monash University.

1 comment:

  1. Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese troops often train together on these islands.