Taiwan’s Special Role in the South China Sea Disputes

Taiwan’s low profile strategy can be explained by its embarrassing position in the South China Sea disputes.

taiwan-south-china-sea-disputesMany are the discussions about interstate conflicts in diplomacy. Likewise, many are the discussions about the South China Sea (SCS) disputes and their implications for regional relations and the general security of East Asia.

The natural resource reserves in the SCS and the free navigation through the sea lanes for transportation of energy and commodities have been argued as the reasons for the states involved in territorial disputes to take uncompromising positions regarding the sovereignty over the islands, waters, and continental shelves, and to enhance naval capabilities in order to back their claims by force if necessary.

The ability of economic interdependence among the regional actors to mitigate security frictions appears in doubt. Nationalism also plays a major role in potentially destabilizing the region and undermining the potential derivative security benefits of regional economic integration. The feasibility and limitations of the American strategic rebalance to Asia and regional multilateralism to manage the conflicts and to construct cooperative environment for the ultimate settlement of the disputes are addressed here.

In these discussions, Taiwan is an actor that is less mentioned and examined, even though it occupies the largest island in the Spratlys, Itu Aba. The reason for Taiwan’s absence in the debate is easy to understand. Taiwan has not been allowed to participate in the regional multilateral organizations and institutions that allow the disputant states to address the territorial issues and expose them to international attention; meanwhile, track-two mechanisms that Taiwan has been involved in are low-profile by nature and do not allow Taiwan’s claims much international exposure.

Taiwan’s ambiguous position in the disputes also contributes to its maintaining a low profile. Moreover, the utility and significance of Taiwan’s maritime administrative and armed services agencies and its diplomatic initiatives during times of regional tension and frictions between China and the United States in recent years has been questioned.

Taiwan’s low profile

Taiwan’s low profile strategy can be explained by its embarrassing position in the South China Sea disputes. Taiwan under the Republic of China (ROC) regime officially has the same claim as that of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This claim, in a broader sense, is part of the claim of an integral China, a concept that was constructed by the ROC regime in China after World War II and, after 1949, has been inherited by both the PRC and ROC regimes.

It is the concept of integral China that offers the PRC the nationalist legitimacy to claim its sovereignty and rights over most of the South China Sea, and, ironically, over the island Taiwan as well. Furthermore, this claim of an integral China is the lever by which China limits Taiwan’s participation in transnational cooperation regarding the management of the conflicts.

To Taiwan’s detriment, and to the detriment of conflict avoidance, conflict resolution, and resolution of the disputes themselves, there is no international support, countering China’s opposition, for Taiwan’s participation. It is also Taiwan’s official claim that puts Taiwan in dilemma: strongly voicing and acting to protect its claim can help only China, the very state that works exhaustively to limit Taiwan’s autonomy and international status.

Furthermore, Taiwan’s claim can damage relations between itself and Southeast Asian claimants at little to no benefit to Taiwan. Paradoxically, to renounce its claims would please the Southeast Asian claimants but would ultimately limit Taiwan’s ability to jointly exploit the region’s resources. Those Southeast Asian disputants would be unlikely to risk Beijing’s wrath further by dealing with Taiwan only in addressing what amounts to joint Taiwan-China claims. Taiwan might pay a stiff penalty for dealing unilaterally with other claimants as well.

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Policy options

For Taiwan, keeping a low profile in the SCS dispute seems the best strategy to pursue the potential to develop the region’s natural resources, either individually or jointly. It seems also the best strategy for Taiwan to balance its relations with and among China and the Southeast Asian states. Despite playing a silent and difficult role, however, Taiwan does have a significant part to play in the relations among the SCS disputant states.

In the context of cross-strait détente since 2008, there were calls during the track-two meetings by some Chinese and Taiwanese scholars and several Chinese military officers for cross-strait cooperation on the SCS issue. The timing of these suggestions was coincident with the intensification of disputes between China and the Southeast Asian claimants which also began in 2007.

However, Taiwan’s Director-General of the National Security Bureau, Tsai De-sheng, answering questions from legislators on May 21, 2012, denied the possibility of military cooperation between Taiwan and China “at least at present,” and acknowledged that there had been inquiries from Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines, asking Taiwan not to cooperate with China. The Director-General also revealed Taiwan’s state-owned oil company had an independent plan to develop the oil deposits near Itu Aba.

After China’s announcement of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in of November, 2013, Tsai, again grilled by legislators on December 3, 2013, stated that the Ma Ying-jeou administration has communicated with China, expressing concerns about the fact that the Chinese military spokespeople had openly expressed the potential to impose an ADIZ on Chinese claims in the SCS when necessary, and that Ma had warned that doing so would damage cross-strait relations.

Although Taiwan’s ability to manage the conflicts in the SCS is limited because of Taiwan’s special political status prevents it from participation in international organizations in which statehood is a prerequisite for membership, Taiwan’s special political status still leaves it some space to maintain the balance among the various contenders.

Taiwan’s limited resources may constrain its ability to act in the sense understood by those who study power politics. Some have argued that Taiwan’s softened approach, particularly after 2008, has allowed China to be more assertively in the East and South China seas, to some extent undermining Taiwan’s maneuverability and, via its association with China, Taiwan’s relations with the other claimants.

If Taiwan does have some effective influence, as the examples imply in previous paragraphs, in the relations of South China Sea disputants beyond merely its own national claim, Taiwan’s role and strategy will likely depend on domestic political developments on the island, which are at the time of this article’s writing are contentious due mostly to cross-Strait relations and the Ma administration’s approach to China. It is unlikely that Ma’s approach will change dramatically, but with elections looming in 2016, a change may not be too far down the road.

Yu-ting Chen is a Master’s student in the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies at the National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Her research interests include East Asian security and politics, and Taiwan’s domestic politics. Her prospective thesis is titled “Cooperation and Competition between the United States and China in the South China Sea.”

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  • hai_nguyen

    Did I understand your position is for Taiwan to maintain its “special role” in the South China Sea disputes by insisting on the same “embarrassing integral China” claim which legitimize Chinese aggressions (including the exclusion of Taiwan in international dialogues) and the same “low profile” policy which serves no one but China? So, what’s the point of this paper?