The ROC (hereafter Taiwan) President Ma Ying-jeou’s East China Sea Peace Initiative came at time of heightened tensions between Japan and the PRC (hereafter China), and to a certain extent also between Taiwan and Japan. It was announced on August 5, 2012 and implementation guidelines were subsequently released on September 6 on the occasion of Ma Ying-jeou’s visit to Taiwan-controlled Pengjia islet (彭佳嶼) in the East China Sea. The Peace Initiative sets out two stages of implementation: (1) peaceful dialogue and mutually reciprocal negotiation; (2) sharing resources and cooperative development. It also defines area of cooperation: (a) fishing industry; (b) mining industry; (c) marine science research and maritime environmental protection; (d) maritime security and unconventional security; and (e) East China Sea Code of Conduct. Most importantly, Ma’s initiative declares intention to reach multilateral negotiations through bilateral dialogues:
Over the long run, we can move from three parallel tracks of bilateral dialogue (between Taiwan and Japan, Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, and Japan and the mainland) to one track of trilateral negotiations and realize peace and cooperation in the East China Sea.
If implemented, the East China Sea Peace Initiative would set Taiwan as an equal partner of China and Japan in joint management of East China Sea resources and eventually as a partner in a trilateral Code of Conduct. The main challenge is obvious: Taiwan will find it difficult to draw attention to the initiative, as China considers Taiwan to be renegade province and Japan does not maintain official relations with Taiwan. This obstacle can be, and is, managed on bilateral levels, however, on a multilateral level will Taiwan’s efforts encounter stiff resistance from China. From Beijing’s perspective, there is a significant lack of incentive to give Taiwan the status of an independent (or autonomous) party in a multilateral arrangement.
Taiwan already upholds a claim over Diaoyutai (釣魚台) as part of the ROC, and by extension it upholds PRC sovereignty, at least from Beijing’s perspective. Japan might be interested in bettering relations with Taiwan (which are currently in fairly good shape), but that won’t come at price of advocating separate chair for Taiwan at the negotiation table. Moreover, even if Tokyo pushes for Taipei’s participation, such an effort stands little chance of convincing Beijing. Furthermore, Japan has little incentive to invest its political capital in bringing Taiwan to the table.
From the Japanese perspective the major problem is China’s position. Taipei’s stance would be irrelevant, provided that Tokyo finds a settlement with Beijing. Last but not least, Beijing is fundamentally opposed to negotiating its territorial claims under a multilateral framework. It would against doing so specifically in the case of East China Sea claims, unless it can be sure that Taipei will act as its agent, a condition that Beijing can hardly hope for considering the high stakes Taiwan has in keeping good relations with Japan (and the U.S.). Moreover, that all means to set aside the unpleasant dilemma Beijing would have to face when dealing at the same time with sovereignty claims over Taiwan and Senkaku/Diaoyutai. The lesson learned from the South China Sea dispute is that a multilateral settlement is unlikely to happen. Considering all key factors, one must ask therefore, why is Ma wasting time with a proposal that no one will seriously consider?
As is often the case, the answer is external visibility and as a message to the Taiwanese domestic audience. There is a strong sense among policy makers and the scholarly community that Taiwan simply cannot afford to stay silent. No reaction equals further marginalization, too strong a reaction risks alienating relations with Japan. The dilemma is not whether but how to respond. Domestic critics of Ma’s initiative argue that it is too similar to the Chinese position. The official position of the government and ruling Kuomintang party is that ownership of the islands belongs to the Republic of China and that the islands were returned to the ROC after 1945 as part of the same arrangement that retroceded Taiwan to ROC.[i]
The opposition Democratic Progressive Party argues that the islands are a natural extension of Taiwan’s part of the continental shelf and thus belong to Taiwan under current international law. Under the surface of the complex of issues relating to Taiwan’s peculiar status, the picture is relatively simple and is defined by the imperatives of democratic politics. Both major parties compete for support among Taiwanese fishermen and cannot ignore their voices asking for freedom of fishing in adjacent waters. However, they are not really interested in sovereignty issue as long as there is an arrangement allowing them to freely fish in the area. Ownership of the islands is as good as reaching an agreement with Japan that is practically acceptable for both Tokyo and Taipei. Nor is anti-Japanese rhetoric particularly appealing among the majority of Taiwanese, except among the minority World Chinese Alliance in Defense of the Diaoyu Islands (世界華人保釣聯盟).
It would be misleading to disconnect the debate in Taiwan from local interests which care little about the question of sovereignty over the islands. Ma may personally want to see Taipei cooperate more closely with Beijing but he must be also aware of public opinion, which is not supportive of such a prospect and does not embrace inflammatory anti-Japanese rhetoric. This makes Taiwan very different from China.
Is Ma being naïve in believing that his Peace Initiative will be seriously considered by the other two claimants? What if we look at the Initiative as a policy tool rather than a roadmap to peaceful settlement? At the end of the day, the goal of the Initiative might be much more modest. It may simply be signalling to Japan and the U.S. that Taiwan has different approach from China and that it is not willing to compromise mutual relations over this issue, while reassuring Beijing that it upholds its claim. If we add the domestic debate to more strategic considerations including the importance of Taiwan-U.S.-Japan relations as well as Cross-strait relations, we have a mix of factors that would restrict a stronger pro-unification President than Ma Ying-jeou. Ma’s announcement that Taiwan will not cooperate with China on Diaoyutai issue should be understood in this context. One thing is certain, simplifying views derived from the pro-China/pro-independence rubric do not hold water.