Features | Politics | East Asia

Taiwan’s Pointless Toe Treading?

The Republic of China maintains sweeping claims to the South China Sea. But is it needlessly alienating much-needed potential friends?

If only Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs could rack up allies as quickly as its scandals or neighbor alienating territorial claims.

A statement released by the ministry this month – the ninth such missive in the past 18 months – called for competing nations to respect the “Republic of China’s unwavering sovereignty over the South China Sea.”

The Republic of China – Taiwan’s official name since Chiang Kai-shek’s battered forces cemented control of the island following their civil war loss to Mao Zedong’s troops – claims about 3.5 million square kilometers  of the oil and gas-rich body of water based on “historical evidence” that Chinese fishermen once plied its waters and trade routes and desolate outcrops were established.

Taipei makes its claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which would be fine if it was a party to UNCLOS, or any other U.N. body or agreement. But the Republic of China was expelled from the United Nations in 1971, when the General Assembly recognized “the Peoples’ Republic of China as the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations.”

While Beijing’s oft-criticized “nine-dotted line” claim has been ridiculed by its Association of Southeast Asian Nation neighbors, Taiwan’s virtually identical declaration has been hammered as “frivolous” and “out of touch with Asia’s diplomatic reality.”

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“I wish they would shut up. There isn’t a single Asian country that even recognizes them. How are they relevant?” asks one Southeast Asian diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They lost their war 65 years ago and they still act like they are a great power. You would think show some humility where these frivolous claims are concerned. Discretion being the better part of valor, and all that.”

Critics of Taiwan’s handling of the situation say Taipei should duplicate its position on its other constitutionally enshrined and often bizarre Asian land claims – by ignoring them. 

Taiwan’s 1947 Constitution, written while Chiang Kai-sheik still had a Chinese capital, makes territorial land claims in all or part of 10 countries, including independent Mongolia, Tibet, and parts of India, Burma, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But those claims are never prosecuted by Taipei, and are only still enshrined in the Constitution because Beijing views any amendment to Taiwan’s territorial claims as a step towards independence and away from its “One China Policy.”

Both the U.S. and China are keen to retain the “status quo.” The U.S. State Department, in particular, is keen to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait by minimizing moves by Taipei that the Middle Kingdom views as provocative.

“I don’t think they have a choice. If Taiwan starts walking away from elements in the Constitution, then it’s like pulling at a thread and where would it stop,” says Douglas Paal, a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, which works as a de facto U.S. embassy in lieu of formal diplomatic ties with the island republic.

While walking away from Taiwan’s constitutional bind is one thing, observers say that Taipei’s pursuance of a claim it knows it can’t win at the expense of ruffling regional feathers  is quite another.  

“They are working with China on this because our claim backs up Beijing’s.  It’s this arrogance of a grand ultra-nationalist vision. But I would argue that if you want to use claims like this as potential bargaining chip in negotiations with China then there should be some credibility to them,” says Michael Kau, a former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs under the independence leaning Democratic Progressive Party. “This idea of treating this huge body of water as ours by right of dubious historical claims, it’s not only not credible, it’s crazy.”

But, unfortunately for MOFA, the South China Sea isn’t the only problem it’s grappling with right now.

Over the past six months, the ministry has been hammered by one scandal after another, that insiders say reflects a growing malaise, a lowering of morale and the tough job of recruiting elite young talent to a ministry with only 23 ambassadorial posts.  

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Taiwan’s representative to Fiji has been under investigation for graft for allegedly misusing diplomatic funds to purchase pricey gifts for a Japanese embassy staffer he was allegedly having an affair with. Another representative in South Africa also came under investigation for graft, then promptly alleged persecution by the Foreign Affairs Ministry and tried to seek political asylum with the ANC-led administration. 

In one of the most embarrassing cases of late, the director general of Taipei’s Economic and Cultural Office in Kansas City was convicted of labor fraud in the United States and deported after a judge found she had forced her two Filipina maids to work up to 18 hours a day without a day off, forbade them from from leaving the residence, monitored them with security cameras and threatened to have them deported. The Taiwan rep also reportedly withheld half of their wages.

Compounding that embarrassment was an appearance on CNN a week earlier by Foreign Minister Timothy Yang aimed at reinforcing Taiwan’s fight against human trafficking. A few weeks later and an unnamed senior official at the ministry was placed under investigation for sexual harassment following an alleged drunken incident at a karaoke bar with two female junior staffers.  

And just to round it off, the ministry recently announced that it has recovered  about half of the $30 million it paid to two bagmen, entrusted with bribing Papua New Guinea officials to switch diplomatic ties from Beijing to Taipei in 2006.

Insiders say MOFA’s problems started even before the contentious Chen Shui-bian administration came into power in 2000, when outgoing Kuomintang diplomats at its most important posts refused to share information and contacts with their incoming DPP colleagues.

Matters took a turn for the worse as U.S.-Taiwan relations soured over Chen’s often fiery independence-laced rhetoric and a number of Taiwanese attempts to bribe Beijing’s allies into switching sides were made public.

Today’s Ma-helmed KMT administration has enacted a “diplomatic truce” with Beijing. Both sides have agreed to stop poaching each other’s allies and maintain the diplomatic status quo. Critics claim that this agreement has seriously affected morale and rendered the ministry largely irrelevant.   

“In Washington, it used to be that the best diplomats in town were the Israelis, Japanese and Taiwanese – all for different reasons of course,” says John F. Copper, a professor of international studies at Rhodes College and author of about 25 books on Taiwan, China and Asian affairs.  “The Taiwanese would send their best people here and they were very active. Now they don’t seem to be trying very hard. They don’t do very much. I don’t know if timid is the right word. It just seems they have resigned themselves to the status quo.”

Irrelevant or not, Taiwan doesn’t have enough friends or space to risk alienating its neighbors, or making an already difficult situation tougher than it needs to be.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry ignored repeated interview and comment requests by The Diplomat.

Cain Nunns is a Taipei-based journalist who writes for The Guardian, Monocle and Global Post, among other publications.