Taiwan: An Emerging Asset for Chinese Expansion?

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Taiwan: An Emerging Asset for Chinese Expansion?

A cross-Strait political agreement could bolster both Chinese and Taiwanese claims in East Asia.

China has recently demonstrated a willingness to be creative in its territorial disputes with other countries, for instance with its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) or oil drilling in disputed waters near Vietnam. Should Beijing manage to get a cross-Strait political agreement signed, then Taiwan could add another useful dimension to its territorial claims. Legally, the “eleven-dash line” claimed by the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan was the basis for China’s “nine-dash line.” After the end of the World War II, China, then governed by the ROC regime, took possession of the Paracel Islands and Itu Aba in the South China Sea. Following the occupation, the ROC regime issued in 1947 a broad “eleven-dash line” in the South China Sea demarking its maritime territory in an official map. In 1949, following its defeat by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War, the ROC regime fled to Taiwan, and subsequently lost the Paracel Islands to France in 1950. It has, however, retained Itu Aba.

The Chinese Communist regime, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), actually inherited most of China’s sovereign claims from the ROC, including territorial claims in the South China Sea, and developed its “nine-dash line” from the ROC’s “eleven-dash line.” However, this transfer has not been legally completed, because the ROC regime still exists in Taiwan and no relevant agreement has been signed by the ROC and the PRC. A political agreement between Taipei and Beijing would complete this transfer, and given China greater legitimacy in establishing its historical claim to the “nine-dash line.” In addition to the South China Sea, various ROC documents could supply Beijing with material to raise new territorial claims.

Taiwan’s location could also allow China to exert more strategic pressure on Japan and the Philippines over their unsettled borders. Given its unique international status, Taiwan has no territorial agreement with either Japan or the Philippines. The latest Japan-Taiwan fisheries accord merely regulates fishing rights of both sides. The only territorial treaty between Taiwan and the Philippines was signed by their colonial masters, Japan and Spain, who in 1895 roughly defined the boundary as the Bashi Strait. Thus, a cross-Strait political agreement would allow Beijing to directly or indirectly deal with those issues. In the event of full unification, Beijing would have legitimate access to those unsettled borders. It would have a range of options, such as an ADIZ, drawing up new territorial borders or economic exclusive zones (EEZ), and exploring for resources in order to develop the disputed areas. Facilities such as airfields and ports in Taiwan would give China better accesses to support such actions. If Taipei maintained a level of autonomy under the political agreement, it could also take similar measures towards Japan and the Philippines at Beijing’s behest.

Facing additional challenges from Taiwan, the Philippines would find its position more untenable than Japan would. Apart from the well-known Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Yonaguni Island and its adjacent waters (Japan’s closest territory to Taiwan), would be the most likely Japanese territory to be affected by China’s expansion. Recently, Tokyo deployed the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to Yonaguni and other adjacent locations. Under the current trend of strengthening defense in Okinawa Prefecture, Chinese challenges emanating from Taiwan would increase Japan’s strategic burden but not create another front. In contrast, as Manila has paid attention to Chinese challenges to the Kalayaan Islands and other locations in the West Philippine Sea, additional territorial issues in Batanes Province would be a new front, and force Manila to stretch its limited resources to its northern border. As a result, the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy would be further weakened in relation to their Chinese counterparts, due to the extra deployments. Despite Manila’s newly signed defense cooperation agreement with Washington, which includes a greater U.S. military presence, it is unlikely that the U.S. Navy would become involved in paramilitary maritime conflicts such as the use of water cannons or the ramming of ships.

But is a Taiwan-China political agreement even likely in the near future? Certainly multiple polls and the recent Sunflower Movement underscore the unpopularity of unification with China. Yet the China-friendly administration of President Ma Ying-jeou has still been able to move cross-Strait negotiations forward. Since 2008, officials from Beijing and Taipei have usually held meetings out of sight of the Taiwanese press, and free from monitoring by the Legislative Yuan. When agreements were made, they would suddenly be presented, often to considerable outrage. Yet the agreements would eventually be passed by the Legislative Yuan, where the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) occupies a majority. With the rapid institutionalization of cross-Strait integration, this pattern could continue at least until the congressional and presidential elections in 2016. It appears conceivable that Ma could codify relations between the ROC and the PRC through a political agreement before the end of his term.

The Sunflower Movement is certainly a response to this unchecked pattern of negotiation, but it did not substantially disrupt it. Going forward, it will be difficult to replicate such a large protest because the government has learned how to prevent the Legislative Yuan from being occupied. Moreover, the recent subway stabbing spree provides legitimacy for the police and other law enforcement institutions to strengthen social control through the monitoring of social media, building databases of potential activists and using facial-matching technology. Hence, there would be no effective domestic means for the opposition to stop a political agreement negotiated by Taipei and Beijing.

Based on its geopolitical concerns, particularly its Asia rebalance, the U.S. may have motive to intervene in a cross-Strait political agreement. However, Washington has not shown any sign of dropping its support for Ma’s approach to China. Whether its indifference to a possible upcoming political agreement is out of respect for Taiwan’s democracy or President Barack Obama’s passive approach to international issues, there appears no substantial international force that could halt the current process toward a political deal with China.

And if a political agreement is reached, Taiwan could prove a very valuable asset in China’s territorial assertions.

Shang-su Wu is a research fellow in the Military Studies Programme, a constitute unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.