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Taiwan on the fence as South China Sea tensions mount

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In Brief

The Asia Pacific is in muted tumult. China has seized on perceived changing regional power equations following the financial crisis and attendant economic stagnation in the US, and adopted a harsher and more insisting tone over its interests.

Taken aback, many regional countries have come to view China in a new, more ominous, light and have moved to embrace (or re-embrace) the US.


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The US, also disturbed by China’s premature triumphalism, has been ready to reciprocate.

This dynamic is clearly evident in the escalating tensions in the South China Sea. China has adopted a more muscular approach to its claims, and worked to prevent ASEAN adopting a common bargaining position and to exclude the US from the dispute. Regional countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines have pushed back, and sought greater cooperation with each other and support from the US. As such, a coalition opposing China’s greater assertiveness appears to be strengthening. Ironically, one country which claims the entire South China Sea, Taiwan (or the Republic of China (ROC)), is trying to avoid picking sides.

On 19 April, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Timothy Yang announced that rather than the army the more elite and amphibious warfare-ready marines will train the coast guard personnel stationed in the South China Sea. There are apparently no plans to increase personnel levels over the current 105 on Taiping Island (Itu Aba) in the Spratly group and the 162 on Pratas Island, or to upgrade their weapons systems. Switching the section of the armed forces training these coast guard personnel is clearly a very modest escalation. So, why bother?

Taiwan’s approach to the issue has never been straightforward. The ROC claimed the South China Sea when it still controlled China, based on more or less the same history with which China now asserts its claims. The ROC occupied Taiping Island in 1946 following Japan’s withdrawal from the region. Other than an interruption from 1950 to 1956, this occupation has continued until today, despite the ROC losing control of China. Since democratisation, Taiwan’s presidents have essentially asserted sovereignty over only the territory over which the State has effective control, although the Taiwanese government continues to claim the entire South China Sea as ROC territory.

Taiwan’s claim is driven by important interests. Taiwan’s presence in the Pratas and Spratlys gives Taiwan a degree of strategic depth in relation to China’s submarine fleet. Taiwan is also dependent on energy imports, and the Spratlys region is said to hold large energy reserves. In addition, Taiwan has a very large fishing industry, and wants access to as much of the region’s fisheries as possible. Uniquely among the claimants, Taiwan’s China-imposed international isolation means it also has a strong interest in simply being involved in international discussions and being treated as a nation state.

Taiwan has pursued these interests through a mix of good will and assertiveness. Taiwan replaced the marines stationed on its two islets with coast guard personnel a decade ago in an attempt to reduce tensions (and costs). Taiwan has also repeatedly called for the cooperative development of the region’s resources. However, Taiwan provoked a strong reaction from Vietnam and the Philippines when it constructed an airstrip on Taiping Island, and when former President Chen Shui-bian subsequently visited the island.

Taiwan’s relationship with China shapes its involvement to a large extent. China does not see Taiwan as a rival claimant. Quite the opposite: Taiwan’s historical and continued military presence there is seen as strengthening China’s claim, which after all claims Taiwan in its entirety. China has threatened Taiwan with war if it changes its official national borders. While China might not go as far as to attack Taiwan if it dropped its claim to the South China Sea, it would nevertheless react hysterically. In addition to this coercion, Taiwan’s stance on China’s claims to the South China Sea is complicated by Taiwan’s identity politics and economic interests in China. Moreover, Taiwan’s position in the South China Sea benefits from not having Beijing direct its considerable power and resources into pushing Taiwan out of the region.

Still, the two sides are of course distinct claimants with sometimes conflicting interests, such as access to fisheries. China also blocks Taiwan’s involvement in international negotiations over the disputed region. Most importantly, Taiwan relies on the US for security from China, and does not share China’s aim of pushing the US out of the South China Sea or intimidating regional countries into capitulation.

Taiwan’s South China Sea policy is thus a balancing act, seeking to protect Taiwan’s interests there while continuing to avoid antagonising China or the US and its allies. China is moderating its tone in the face of the bristling regional reaction. But the fundamental conflict between China and the United States remains, and Taiwan will not be able to stay on the fence indefinitely.

Joel Atkinson is a lecturer in Taiwan Studies at Monash University.

One response to “Taiwan on the fence as South China Sea tensions mount”

  1. The conclusion in the last paragraph may not be correct.
    Why should Taiwan have to explicitly choose sides between China and the US?
    Although there will not necessarily be fundamental or serious conflict of interests over the South China Sea between China and Taiwan in the long term, in the event of a such a conflict between China and the US over South China Sea, Taiwan is unlikely to join either side in that conflict.

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