Taiwan (part 2)— Tensions in the South China Sea
To Beijing’s annoyance, Taiwan claims full ownership over the main island groups in the South China Sea, including Spratly, Paracel and Macclesfield Bank.
The claim derives from the original Republic of China that predated Mao’s Democratic Republic of China. Its leaders moved to Taiwan for safety in 1949 and turned to genuine multiparty democracy about 20 years ago.
This position might just be sophistry since China, Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia also dispute sovereignty of the islands but it is a political necessity for Taiwan until the question of its international acceptance as a nation is settled.
The US has increased naval and air patrols to warn Beijing against using force or building “facts on the ground” to grab the islands and surrounding 200 mile exclusive economic zones. That grab is real since no local power has the maritime power required to deter or challenge Beijing.
Beijing is responding to American patrols by building runways capable of hosting war planes on several land reclamations and reefs, including Subi Reef, Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross. The US calls all of them contested waters.
An American warship sailed close to Subi last November to signal Washington’s rejection of Chinese claims but Beijing is undeterred, although it insists it will not militarize the islands.
In an act of prescient diplomacy, Taiwan announced a “South China Sea Peace Initiative” in May 2015.
“The thrust of my proposal is to shift the focus from settling territorial disputes to jointly developing resources. Although sovereignty cannot be divided, resources can still be shared,” said Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s President at that time.
“We provide a pragmatic and forward-looking course of action, before a major conflict breaks out. Whether in the Taiwan Strait, East China Sea, or South China Sea, our approach is the same—to resolve disputes through peaceful means.”
This is easier said than done because it requires agreement by all concerned to prevent the pot from boiling over. Beijing may drag its feet since it still uses an invasion of Taiwan as the ultimate threat and Washington continues to boost Taiwan and its own military presence to deter China.
Challenging Beijing’s encroachment in the region, Taiwan has built up Taiping island as a small population center and nature-friendly haven in the South China Sea’s Spratly group. However, it has been very careful not to provoke Beijing too much.
Taiwan is keen to demonstrate that Taiping is an island rather than a rock — to claim the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ)under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Tsai will certainly continue these policies because they are serve as pawns on region’s chess board without directly threatening any power. US naval power remains her security umbrella but each move by any side raises the stakes and mutual tensions a little.
An EEZ is an important asset especially as the South China Sea is thought to be very rich in oil, minerals and other undersea treasures. This is also a reason for the Chinese grab. A rock gets just an insecure 12 nautical mile territorial limit.
Yet, her own young people rather than Beijing’s threats or American power might limit her freedom of action. To consolidate power, she must first satisfy the economic and social justice demands of the new generation of Taiwanese, who make up her chief vote bank.
They certainly do not want any kind of flap with China but they are also unlike the previous generation that acquiesced to a lack of clear national identity and pride in the nation because of pressure from Beijing.
Among all the problems harassing any US President, new tensions between Taiwan and China will be unwelcome since any mistake would force Washington to face down Beijing more resolutely.
Tsai will also have to build bridges to the KMT old guard who are loathe to alienate Beijing because some of them still think that the pre Mao Republic of China is the authentic inheritor of Chinese history rather than the mainland’s Communist Party.
If it happens, that show down with the old guard in Taiwan’s domestic politics is unlikely to be smooth sailing.
The DPP, especially its new generation voters, want to look forward to be accepted and politically legitimate players in world affairs. Their top desire is to be networked into the global economy while holding their passports boldly without fear of mainland China.
These are tall orders for Tsai but the rise of ambitious youth demanding more from its rulers is a global phenomenon. Her government will not be able to escape accountability from her own young people.