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In island dispute, Taiwan lacks both carrot and stick

Publication Date : 13-09-2012


Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou paid an inspection visit to Pengjia Islet, or Agincourt, last Friday. His purpose was to emphasise Taiwan's sovereignty over the Tiaoyutai Islands, which the Japanese call the Senkakus and claim as their inherent territory just as China does. The purpose was served.

The sovereignty dispute, which arose after a U.N. survey indicated that there are vast oil reserves under the waters of the tiny uninhabited islets, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu Islands. Tensions are mounting between China and Japan with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's decision to nationalise the Senkaku Islands, three of which ultra-nationalist Governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara would like to buy if he could to defend against an imagined imminent Chinese takeover. Taiwan has to do something for self-preservation in the new conflict among the three sovereignty claimants.

That something is the “East China Sea Peace Initiative” Ma proclaimed, coincidentally 60 years after the Peace Treaty of Taipei went into force. Under the treaty, signed on April 28, 1952, Japan renounced Taiwan and its appertaining islands, which were returned to the Republic of China. Ma's initiative calls for shelving the sovereignty dispute in order to jointly develop the Tiaoyutais' resources, but that call fell on deaf ears. So, he flew to Taiwan's northernmost island of Pengjia to announce an action plan to make the East China Sea a sea of peace and prosperity.

Under Ma's action plan, a three-way dialogue is proposed to emerge among Taiwan, Japan and China. He said on Pengjia that there now exist three bilateral dialogue platforms between Taiwan and Japan, China and Taiwan, and Japan and China. If three countries were all in agreement, the three bilateral platforms could be amalgamated into one tripartite dialogue mechanism to negotiate a modus vivendi for their joint development of the resources of the small archipelago, a mere 100 miles northeast of Keelung. As an idea, it sounds just as good and fine as the “East China Sea Peace Initiative.” But neither of them can work.

The tripartite dialogue would be possible, if all three countries were agreed. First of all, they have to agree the sovereignty dispute exists. But all of them insist their sovereignty is indisputable. Taiwan and China would shelve that dispute, but Japan stubbornly reiterates there isn't a dispute that needs to be shelved in the first place.

 Even if Tokyo were persuaded to shelve the sovereignty dispute to get the tripartite dialogue under way, mutual suspicion would doom it to utter failure. Japan would suspect that Taiwan and China might gang up against it. Taiwan doesn't want to appear subordinate to China, which suspects Taipei and Tokyo could make a secret deal to the detriment of its national interests. Taipei would also suspect it might be shunted aside by Tokyo and Beijing that may arrange a similar deal for their mutual benefit.

Nonetheless, this is the best Ma can do under the existing circumstances. China is an emerging bully. Japan is a world power. And the president, under pressure of Taiwan's rising new nationalism, has to make a move to safeguard the sovereignty of the Tiaoyutai Islands in the face of his two formidable adversaries. He can't rattle a sabre that Taiwan doesn't have. Taiwan relies on China and Japan for trade to survive, and Ma cannot afford to threaten an embargo or economic sanctions to make the two adversaries listen. In fact, he cannot resort to anything potent enough for persuading them to treat Taiwan as a party to the dispute on an equal footing.

Between a rock and a hard place, President Ma has chosen the East China Sea Peace Initiative and the trip to Pengjia, which Su Tseng-chang, chairman of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, has condemned as an act of “making an Ah Q out of himself.” As a matter of fact, it is Ma's only path between Scylla and Charybdis.

Su is now suggesting Ma should call upon the United States to join in a quadripartite dialogue to solve the sovereignty dispute. Apparently, Su does not know Ma is not doing all this to solve the problem, but rather in order just to avoid remaining under fire from Su and company for failure to safeguard Taiwan's inherent territory of the Tiaoyutai Islands.


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