Like other countries in Northeast Asia, Taiwan reacted with alarm to Beijing’s November 23 announcement that it had established, and would enforce, an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that extends into the East China Sea and incorporates the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islets. However, Taipei’s precarious situation vis-à-vis China, with which it is seeking to improve relations, seems to have constrained the administration’s ability to react appropriately to China’s unexpected move.
Soon after Beijing announced the creation of the extended ADIZ, Chuck Hagel, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, countered by calling the move “a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region” and a “unilateral action [that] increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also weighed in, referring to the move as a “dangerous act.” On November 26 Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs summoned the Chinese ambassador to convey Canberra’s concerns. Germany said the move “raised the risk of an armed incident between China and Japan.”
Beyond the angry rhetoric, the U.S. sent two unaccompanied B-52 bombers on a “routine” flight through China’s ADIZ, while civilian airlines from Japan and South Korea have announced that they will not comply with Beijing’s ADIZ regulations by providing flight plans for transit through the zone.
Given the fact that the extended ADIZ, which overlaps with existing ADIZs already established by Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, is as much an escalation of Beijing’s territorial dispute with Japan as a means to protect China’s airspace, it is understandable that Tokyo and Washington would deny the legitimacy of China’s latest move. Though a case can be made that Japan’s own extension of its ADIZ in 2010 constituted a similar effort, it is difficult to argue that Beijing’s move, occurring when it did, does not fuel instability within the region and increase the risks of accidents, if not armed conflict. Beijing’s attempt to use international law to create facts on the ground is a source of instability, and in the present case, it is one that needlessly puts civilian lives at risk.
As one of the claimants in the Senkaku/Diaoyutai dispute and one of the countries directly affected by the new ADIZ rules, Taiwan is as entitled as the U.S., Japan and South Korea to express its discontent. Beyond the zone’s encroachment upon parts of Taiwan’s claimed sovereignty, about 100 flights daily by Taiwanese civilian transporters must now provide flight charts to the Chinese military under the new measures. Moreover, Taiwanese citizens traveling within the region are now subject to the increased risks of miscalculation that stem from China’s enforcement of the extended ADIZ.
But Taipei’s reaction has been surprisingly mild. President Ma Ying-jeou has stated that China’s ADIZ has nothing to do with Taiwan’s territory or airspace, and seems more concerned about the impact of Beijing’s gambit on his legacy as the mind behind the East China Sea peace initiative. For its part, the Presidential Office has stated reservations in a subdued manner, with vague claims of its intent to “defend its sovereignty.”
Although the ADIZ controversy has little to do with Taiwan, the crisis forces Taipei to walk a tightrope, if not to choose which camp it belongs in. By immediately acquiescing to Beijing’s ADIZ regulations, Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration legitimized China’s move, which is understandable from the standpoint of ensuring air safety. However, if it doesn’t want to be seen as siding with China, Taipei will have to do something — and vague platitudes are insufficient.
But what can a country that doesn’t have diplomatic relations with China, let alone a representative office, do to express its discontent? Taipei cannot summon the Chinese ambassador, as there isn’t one. And furthermore, its policy is driven largely by the Ma administration’s efforts to improve relations with Beijing, a process that was initiated in 2008 and which has arguably yielded some positive results.
What Taipei can do is take a stand on matters that are of larger import than the immediate issue of improving cross-strait ties. Regional stability and the safety of Taiwanese air travelers certainly come to mind. For that to happen, though, Taipei would have to take the initiative on cross-strait liberalization, which it hasn’t done to date, having played a mostly reactive role in the bilateral dialogue.
The best way Taipei can achieve this is by introducing costs to Chinese misbehavior or moves, such as the ADIZ, that exacerbate tensions in the region. One area where Taiwan has leverage on China is cross-strait exchanges and agreements, which, while theoretically beneficial to both, are regarded by Beijing as stepping stones to the ultimate goal of “reunification.” In retaliation for Chinese moves that contribute to instability, Taiwan could, for one, slow down the pace of engagement, or it could deny entry to senior Chinese officials in charge of cross-strait affairs.
Interestingly, the ADIZ incident occurs as Chen Deming, the chairman of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), is on his first visit to Taiwan as head of a delegation. With no Chinese officials permanently based in Taiwan (this could change soon with the proposed establishment of representative offices), Chen’s presence in the country offers a great opportunity for Taiwan to state its positions. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the agency in charge of exchanges with China, or even the Presidential Office could summon Chen for questioning, or at a minimum ask him to bring a démarche back to Beijing. More controversially, Taipei could cut Chen’s visit short and force him and his delegation to leave Taiwan earlier than scheduled.
Already, Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party has called for a strong response to China, which includes scrapping Chen’s visit. Given the stakes, this is an area where both the DPP and Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) should, in principle, agree.
President Ma, who has invested substantial political capital in his East China Sea peace initiative, ostensibly wants Taiwan to be treated as an equal participant in regional security. If it wants to achieve this goal, Taiwan will have to develop enough backbone to stand up to China when the latter adopts policies that increase tensions in the region. Conversely, inaction risks being perceived as tacit approval of China’s gradual efforts to create facts on the ground.