In a recent article in The Diplomat (‘How Taiwan Can Upstage China’), Richard Pearson makes a commendable case for why it would be wise for Taipei to abandon its ‘outdated and legally untenable claims’ in the South China Sea.
Pearson’s argument—that Taiwan should renounce the 1947 nine-dotted ‘U-shaped’ line—is almost perfectly well-reasoned. By holding on to such claims, Taiwan appears to be willing to ‘Odd(ly)’ upset other claimant states by siding with Beijing. By doing so, Taipei appears just as belligerent in principle as China, and so generates animosity among other possible partners in the region, particularly ASEAN claimants. Taiwan’s military will certainly not play any form of decisive role in a decision, argues Pearson. And, what is more, dropping such a claim and adhering to international law would win Taiwan international respect.
According to Pearson, even after the renunciation of sovereignty claims to the entire area, Taiwan will still benefit from unimpeded access to the area’s vital shipping lanes. Moreover, relinquishing such claims to the entire area need not entail Taiwan’s retreat from Itu Aba Island (Taiping Dao), as sovereignty over the islands can be discussed at a later date.
Pearson rightly argues that such a strategy would be a ‘more reasonable and conciliatory’ policy for Taipei to follow, and is ‘more regionally accommodating, legally defensible and internationally acceptable.’ It would also pose a major political problem for Beijing, the only remaining ‘U-shaped’ line claimant.
The only big problem with Pearson’s argument, however, is that this ‘reasonable’ suggestion is unrealistic from Taipei’s perspective, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. Note I’m not saying Pearson is wrong, nor am I arguing that his policy prescription is unacceptable—at least not to me. Indeed, it would make perfect sense for a reasonable Taiwan government to renounce all sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, even perhaps Itu Aba Island.
But I wouldn’t advise anyone to their breath. Here’s why.
It would be extremely unlikely for the Beijing-friendly administration of Ma Ying-jeou to risk any form of backlash within the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) or to further alienate other members of the pan-blue group by ‘surrendering’ Taipei’s—and by that I mean the Republic of China’s—claims in the South China Sea. (Ma’s KMT is currently in a spat with other pan-blue groups, particularly the People’s First Party and its head, James Soong.) Already perceived in various circles as spineless, heavy-handed, a ‘creeping separatist,’ and weak on defence, Ma would be opening himself up to major criticism from deep blue constituencies in Taiwan that still dream of retaking the mainland by any means necessary. Such a backlash would harm Ma in his re-election bid while simultaneously alienating Beijing.
Let us not forget that much of the KMT still believes it is the only legitimate government of all of China—the only real political sticking point between Taipei and Beijing in their negotiations. Let us also not forget that the KMT still claims sovereignty over Mongolia, a nation that has been nominally independent since late 1911, and out of direct Chinese control for over eight decades. In short, it would be far more practical for the KMT to renounce all sorts of ‘outdated and legally untenable claims,’ for example, claims to Mongolia, claims to the South China Sea, claims to the Senkaku Islands—and even claims to China. But for many reasons, particularly the KMT’s own raison d’être, none of these completely reasonable—and totally realistic—renunciations have any chance of occurring.
Pearson’s hopes may rest with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), but here, too, his hopes will ultimately be dashed. Not only would such a move from a green administration be constrained by what has always been a blue-dominated Legislative Yuan, but it would also arguably be precluded by the interpretation of some clause, either explicit or implied, in the Taiwanese Constitution (a document which remains, by the way, essentially a party-state constitution).
Moreover, any attempts by a non-blue administration to renounce such claims, linked as inextricably as they are to claims to be the only legitimate Chinese government, would be denounced both by pan-blue groups and Beijing as ‘separatist’ and/or ‘purely opportunistic’ politicking. Again, let us not forget that the KMT believes not simply that Taiwan is a part of China, but that the KMT is China. The KMT, which could not tolerate the green presidency of Chen Shui-bian successfully procuring F-16 C/Ds from the United States, would hardly sit idly by as yet another ‘separatist’ undermines the KMT’s own evermore ‘outdated and legally untenable claims’—claims that exist virtually everywhere one looks.
Other ‘separatists,’ such as the aforementioned former president Chen and former President Lee Teng-hui, have been pilloried by both Beijing and Taipei (and at times by Washington) for their attempts to simply be realistic and reasonable about Taiwan’s de facto independence. Any future leader—but especially a green one—would meet a similar, if not a worse, fate if they were to ‘take the separatist road.’ This isn’t a very inviting prospect for any leader, especially given where the two ‘separatist’ former presidents have ended up—Chen in prison and Lee possibly headed in that direction.
And this is where Pearson’s very reasonable argument ends: reasonability doesn’t exist in cross-Strait relations. The hopeless ideologues who propose to be the only legitimate government of all of China (including Mongolia, the South China Sea, the Senkaku Islands, and Taiwan), the KMT, are viewed as ‘pragmatists.’ Meanwhile, those who see the reality of Taiwan as a de facto independent state and seek to simply have reality written down in the books are labelled hopeless ‘ideologues.’ When pan-blue politicians can claim that pan-green groups are anti-Taiwan because they don’t favour closer links with China and, thus, seek to cause harm to Taiwan’s economy, yet those same pan-blue politicians buckle under Beijing’s economic and political pressures, it’s clear that all reasonability has already flown out the window.
When Pearson writes that, ‘Odd as it may seem given their history of animosity, the South China Sea territorial claims of the governments of China and Taiwan are nearly identical,’ he is, once again, right on the money. His only mistake is that he is being reasonable.
Nathan W. Novak is a Master's candidate in the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies at the National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. He would like to thank Richard Pearson and Jerome Cohen for their comments on an earlier draft.