Jabin T. Jacob, Assistant Director and Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s visit to Taiping/Itu Aba Island in the Spratly Islands on 28 January 2016 was justified among other things on the grounds that he visited men and women in uniform before every Lunar New Year and that he was seeking to clarify the legal status of the island.
There are however, some issues that need to be considered.
For one, Ma did not mention the visit to Taiping of his predecessor Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in February 2008. Standing before military personnel this omission perhaps weakened Taiwan’s/Republic of China’ (ROC) image and position, which is to say that there is an element of dissonance between the Kuomintang’s (KMT) position and that of its political rival.
Two, Ma also used the occasion to announce his South China Sea Peace Initiative Roadmap taking forward his South China Sea Peace Initiative which was announced first in May 2015 and which in turn followed his East China Sea Peace Initiative announced in August 2012, where China, Taiwan and Japan have competing claims. But such a peace initiative is not new with Chen also calling for peace and environmental protection and the setting aside of sovereignty disputes. He also suggested setting up a research centre to hold international seminars and which could also serve as a Track-2 forum for contacts with other countries. Ma appears now to have repeated Chen’s ideas in a different form.
Three, the visit especially to such a sensitive location that is part of a territorial dispute involving several claimants comes at a time when Ma is in his lame-duck phase of his presidency. It might have sent a more powerful message abroad and at home had Ma visited before the presidential elections in January or even in his first term in office. Chen, for instance, visited before the presidential elections that were held in March 2008. Now, it would seem like he had decided not to take the risk in the interests of not sabotaging a potential meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping, which finally took place in November 2015.
Interpreting the Visit
There are at least a couple of ways of interpreting Ma’s visit and what he sought to achieve by it.
One, he could be attempting to strengthen Taiwan’s identity as the ROC or as part of the ROC and thus also the ‘one China’ principle. This then makes things difficult for president-elect Tsai Ing-wen and her party the DPP, which is pro-Taiwan. This view is supported by Ma’s remarks on the sovereignty dispute over the South China Sea Islands where he states that ‘these islands were first discovered, named, and used by the Chinese in the Western Han dynasty (in the first century BCE) [and that they were incorporated into the maritime defense system no later than 1721, in the Kangxi period of the Qing dynasty, with patrols and other management measures.’
These claims based on history are dubious ones. In effect, Ma’s statements as ROC president only serve the function of supporting the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) claims, since to the wider international community ROC is not a legitimate international actor but was once so before being succeeded by the PRC.
Alternatively, by acting so clearly in opposition to the PRC and other claimants, Ma could be helping set a precedent for Tsai to maintain Taiwan’s/ROC’s international space. Under the Initiative, ROC and the Philippines signed an agreement to reduce fisheries disputes in contested waters.
In this context, Ma’s South China Sea Peace Initiative might also be an opportunity for Tsai to expand Taiwan’s international space, if she takes it as forming part of a continuum from Chen Shui-bian’s original proposals.
Ma’s Roadmap based on a framework of ‘three yeses and three noes’ without doubt establishes Taiwan’s peaceable intentions but also criticizes the other disputants for their ‘confrontation’, ‘monopolizing’, and ‘intransigence’. The PRC arguably ticks all three boxes and thus the ROC clearly sets itself up in opposition in terms of both identity and intentions.
Ma’s concrete suggestions come in terms of dispute resolution involving three phases – shelving disputes, integrated planning, and zonal development. Of his ‘two essential elaborations’ designed to provide the foundation on the basis of which to work towards resolution, the first at least, has implications for Taiwan’s international space since it requires that ‘all parties concerned in the region should be included in the consultation mechanism’. Certainly, there can be no doubt that Taiwan is included but it is open to interpretation whether such parties as the US, Japan and South Korea, too will be part of the process. While these countries might not have territorial claims, the US is involved in various ways in maintaining stability in the region, and Japan and South Korea are affected directly by the implications of a potential territorial settlement since each has an maritime dispute with China (Senkakus and Socotra Rock respectively).
The call to ‘negotiate codes of conduct regarding unexpected sea or air encounters in the South China Sea area, as well as the establishment of hotlines and other security mechanisms’ as part of the first short term phase of shelving disputes can also conceivably increase Taiwan’s international space since this perforce requires each party to talk to and formalize mechanisms with Taiwan/ROC separately from the PRC. In other words, a ‘one-China’ rubric is not quite operable here. The other phases in the medium and longer terms also contain opportunities for Taiwan-friendly or Taiwan-recognizing measures by other parties.
Limitations and Possibilities of the Peace Initiative
However, these possibilities cannot have escaped the notice of the PRC and other claimants. Beijing will naturally try to ensure that any dispute resolution or joint management proposals exclude Taiwan. The other claimants meanwhile, might recognize the value of driving a wedge between the PRC and ROC/Taiwan but also realize that given the KMT’s history and positions, to agree to Ma’s suggestions might well end up handing an advantage to the PRC under the one-China principle. These other claimants will only be comfortable with such a Peace Initiative with Taiwan at the table if they can be assured that the PRC and ROC will not join forces either during the negotiations process or afterwards.
Ironically, for Ma and his KMT government, it is only the avowedly pro-independence DPP in power that assures them of such a possibility. Even here, however, the non-PRC claimants will also want to drive a hard bargain with a DPP administration trying to use their adherence to the ‘one-China’ policy to extract concessions. Such a situation does not bode well for Taipei’s prospects in the South China Sea disputes.
In any case, the US has predictably been unhappy about Ma’s visit that came at a time Secretary of State John Kerry was holding talks with the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing. The spokesperson of the American Institute in Taiwan, described the US as being ‘disappointed’ and said, “Such an action is extremely unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea”.
These factors both current and potential might encourage the new DPP government under Tsai Ing-wen to either withdraw or ignore Ma’s Peace Initiative. It is notable that the DPP refused to send a representative to join Ma on his trip to Taiping Island. However, the DPP statement also reiterated that the its chairperson Tsai had ‘reaffirmed many times the party’s adherence to Taiwan’s sovereignty claims, and this position remains unchanged.’ This could also mean that after a reasonable length of time the DPP could put forward its own peace plan or initiative for the South China Sea harking back to Chen Shui-bian’s 2008 proposals, as mentioned earlier. To be clear, the DPP support’s Taiwan’s sovereignty claims not the ROC’s claims. The argument could be that these territories are Taiwanese under international law and UNCLOS – which have been referred to in the same statement – but in a more modern and legally grounded manner than on the basis of history as the PRC and the KMT/ROC have also claimed. Indeed, the DPP has also sought to inject an element of ambiguity about the ROC sovereignty claims in the South China Sea by leaving much unsaid. At least two senior DPP members, including Parris Chang, former deputy secretary-general of the National Security Council, have suggested that continuing with the 11-dash-line claim may not be in Taiwan’s interests. This was then used during the presidential election campaign by the KMT to suggest that a DPP administration would give up on South China Sea claims.
Of course, it has to be remembered that President Ma had declared in a speech in September 2014 that “the principle that ‘sovereignty over land determines ownership of the surrounding waters,’ which is set out in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, applies to disputes concerning sovereignty over both land and sea.” This tones done somewhat the rather expansive claims based on the 11-dash line and thus differs with the PRC’s position. But the DPP could give additional ballast to a Taiwanese position as opposed to a KMT/ROC position by stating control of those islands Taiwan claims today have been achieved and maintained by expending Taiwanese – not Chinese – blood and sweat. This then would confirm the PRC’s fears that the DPP in power would complicate its sovereignty claims over the South China Sea.