Written by Alex Calvo.

A look at the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region reveals a landscape full of territorial disputes, with more than a few featuring regular incidents and a clear risk of escalation. Right in the middle of these disputes stands Taiwan, in more than one way. First of all, geographically, the Island is right between China and the open waters of the Pacific, while sitting astride some of Japan’s most vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs). During the Second World War “Many planners considered Formosa such a valuable strategic prize that they devoted considerable attention to the possibility of bypassing all the Philippines in favor of a direct descent upon Formosa”, and although finally General MacArthur’s position that Luzon should take precedence prevailed, there were no doubts about Taiwan’s key strategic location. Second, in the case of Taiwan, it is not just borders that are disputed but her own existence as a sovereign entity is contested, while her identity is also in flux. Finally, while the Republic of China (ROC) claims the same territory as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the former is a maritime democracy and has long renounced the use of force to control the mainland.

Overlapping territorial claims, involving the South China and the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai, are an essential pillar of pan-Chinese Nationalism. On a theoretical and historical plane, they bring together the PRC and the ROC, reinforcing their identification and stressing that it is two governments, not two states, that one finds across the Taiwan Strait. On a practical plane, Beijing has often engineered or supported illegal landings in the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai Islands featuring “compatriots” from Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and even gone as far as including the ROC and Kuomintang flags. Such policies have sometimes received a measure of support from Taipei, with for example ROC coastguard vessels escorting one such boat in July 2012.

However, China’s attempt to use territorial disputes to gather support for the consensual finlandization or Anschluss of Taiwan do not seem to have succeeded. In addition to wider obstacles in the path of Beijing’s goal, including her Hong Kong policy and the gradual emergence of a civic identity in Taiwan, Taipei has turned out to follow a much more nuanced and pragmatic approach than some may have thought likely a few years ago. This is clear from at least three developments: President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) East China Sea Peace Initiative (2012), Taiwan’s fisheries agreement with Japan (2013), and the current exhibition of ROC maps and documents concerning the South China Sea (2014).

In a nutshell, Ma’s initiative means “freezing” the discussion over borders, while disputants engage in the joint development of economic resources. It is a concept that will sound familiar to students of the Antarctic Treaty System (although in the White Continent mining and energy production are not allowed). The advantages include the chance to build confidence and a lesser likelihood of incidents. In addition, if developed, this Initiative would also mean greater room for diplomatic manoeuvre by Taiwan, as well as greater visibility for the Island. Of course, this last aspect is yet another reason for suspicion by Beijing, which unlike Tokyo has not shown much interest, to put it mildly.

The East China Sea Peace Initiative may not have resulted in comprehensive talks among Japan, China, and Taiwan, but it has indeed resulted in, or at least inspired, a concrete bilateral agreement: that between Taipei and Tokyo last year. By setting aside the issue of sovereignty and reaching (after 17 years) a deal on natural resources managements, Taiwan and Japan have shown Asia and the wider world that it is indeed possible to bypass territorial disputes in a bid to lower tensions and ensure the proper stewardship of the seas. Although the deal may be seen as a way for Tokyo to prevent a collusion between Beijing and Taipei, and a move by the latter to gain some breathing space, it is first and foremost a practical, concrete example of diplomacy and statesmanship at its best. Its subject matter is doubly important. Fisheries are on the one hand an essential economic sector in maritime Asia. On the other, they are increasingly becoming a quasi-military force at the service of the state. The deal thus means that Japan and Taiwan will not play that game, and it also signals another small but tangible step in Tokyo’s gradual reinterpretation of the “One China” principle, which is coming under growing strain in the face of tensions with China, Taiwan’s democratization, and the national security imperative of preventing the fall of Formosa into hostile hands or the Island’s neutralization. Some Japanese voices suggested that the fisheries agreement with Taiwan may serve as a template for a wider diplomatic engagement with China, aimed at lowering tensions and also agreeing on joint natural resource management while freezing sovereignty disputes. However, Beijing’s seemingly maximalist approach to territorial disputes, and her refusal to engage with Taiwan as an equal, make such development unlikely in the short term. In the case of the Philippines, the death of a Taiwanese fisherman on 9 May 2013 prompted a strong reaction, including sanctions and naval drills, but ended up leading to a joint investigation and fisheries talks, which are expected to soon lead to a formal agreement. An agreement not to use force on fisheries dispute was already signed last year and did not go unnoticed in Vietnam, with one media outlet calling it “good precedents for handling conflicts in the East Sea”.

Finally, we shall refer to the current exhibition by the ROC Ministry of the Interior titled “Exhibition of Historical Archives on the Southern Territories of the Republic of China”, at the Academia Historica in Taipei, which includes many maps and other documents. Among others, the exhibition may shed some light on the historical origins of the “11-dash line”. In his opening address, President Ma referred once more to his East China Sea Peace Initiative, recalled the fisheries agreements with Japan and the Philippines, and insisted that “While sovereignty cannot be compromised, resources can be shared”. He also stressed that “the ROC should not be absent” from any multilateral negotiations on the South China Sea. Furthermore, and this may be an important development, Taiwan’s leader clarified the extent of the ROC’s claims on the South China Sea, saying that they covered islands and 3 or 12 nautical miles around them, with “no other so-called claims to sea regions”. This is important because it fits with customary international law and UNCLOS, and stands in contrast with Beijing, which seems to be claiming the whole Sea, in a posture clashing with international law, as the Philippines have stated in their international arbitration case against China. Thus, it amounts to yet another reminder of how the Ma administration’s foreign policy is much more nuanced that some observers claim. Whether out of democratic and coexistence convictions, or diplomatic necessity and pragmatism, it may signal a major departure from Beijing’s approach to the South China Sea.

Things are not so simple though. When faced with calls by some US academics to formally abandon claims based on the 11-dash line and instead found them on international law, Professor Edward Chen (陳一新) pointed out that this was not so easy for the ROC, since it would mean opening up the constitutional debate on its territory, meaning “issues such as ‘one China, one Taiwan,’ ‘two Chinas,’ ‘the two-state theory,’ ‘one state on either side,’ or even ‘Taiwan independence’ will emerge‘. Chen’s comments show the limits of the Ma administration’s pragmatism. While the agreement with Japan signals a clear departure from Chinese irredentism, full integration into the concert of the maritime democracies would require a explicit break away from Taiwan’s constitutional identification with China. We can thus see how the issues of Taiwan’s identity and international status are inexorably linked with the Island’s role in the region’s territorial disputes, even more so when it comes to the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai dispute. Taipei has already refused to gang with Beijing against Tokyo, and has also displayed pragmatism towards Manila. As public opinion in the Island keeps moving away from China as a nation state (in a move compatible with a vision of China as a culture, or civilization), we can expect more and more pressure, both domestic and from partners and Allies, on Taipei to change the basis of her claims in the South China Sea. This would be yet another step in the gradual recognition that Taiwan is not only de facto sovereign, but politically so far apart from China, as to make unification an unlikely proposition unless brought about by a defeat on the beaches and on the landing grounds. We can thus conclude saying that Taiwan is and will likely remain at the heart of the maritime territorial disputes in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region, and that her political and diplomatic evolution will be one of the key determinants setting out their future course.

Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Keelung Coast Guard.