James Holmes

Taiwan’s East China Sea Peace Plan

President Ma has crafted a plan to solve the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute. Could it work?

Since China decided to force the issue over ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu archipelago, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou has been pushing an “East China Sea Peace Initiative” aimed at convincing the parties to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute to set aside their territorial claims for the sake of mutual economic prosperity. In essence they would agree to kick the can down the road, sharing undersea resources around the islands in hopes that tempers will eventually cool — easing the political deadlock.

The initiative’s slogan is “Safeguarding Sovereignty, Promoting Joint Exploration and Development.” Such a proposal makes sense as much as any venture can in this hothouse environment. But however worthy Taipei’s cause, the two halves of its slogan appear irreconcilable. Japan, China, and Taiwan all assert sovereignty over the contested islets. Who rules a particular bit of ground is typically a zero-sum game. Japan will yield the Senkakus, or China will. There is no safeguarding every party’s claim to sovereignty.

The Ma administration’s proposal, it seems, pits the motives Athenian historian Thucydides saw at work behind human actions — namely fear, honor, and interest– against one another. It amounts to hoping that rational calculations of economic self-interest will overrule equally elemental imperatives such as fear of future aggression or the thirst for honor and prestige. It amounts to hoping that rationalism will induce the parties to make a durable peace.

And indeed, such an approach makes perfect sense in cost/benefit terms. Clausewitz urges statesmen and soldiers to let the value of the political object guide the magnitude and duration of the effort they exert on behalf of that object. But this is a rather sterile way of looking at the world. It implies that the worth of human goals — goals that are inherently subjective — can be quantified. Such a view is problematic. It ignores how fear and honor color calculations such as Clausewitz’s.

Basic impulses, that is, drive up the value of national goals — making it hard to back down from confrontations or conclude a lasting peace.This is my roundabout way of casting doubt on Taipei’s peace initiative. President Ma is a skilled diplomat. I hope he’s right about the dynamics at work in the East China Sea. But I don’t think so.