The ongoing standoff in the waters around the Diaoyutai Islands (in Japanese, Senkaku) threatens Taiwan’s security, though not primarily for the obvious reason. Taiwan, China, and Japan all claim the islands, though Beijing and Tokyo sometimes appear intent on settling the issue without regard for Taipei’s assertion of sovereignty. Such an eventuality, of course, would further marginalize Taiwan in East Asia and, from Taipei’s perspective, leave Taiwan with its sovereignty impinged upon. Even so, more pressing matters are at stake—namely, the future security of Taiwan island itself.
Mainland China has been and, for the foreseeable future, will continue to be Taiwan’s greatest security threat. The Chinese Communist Party remains intent on unifying the island with the mainland, by force if necessary. The People’s Liberation Army regularly trains to achieve that goal, and the nature of Chinese military modernization makes a forceful unification increasingly feasible.
Now, thanks to the ongoing standoff in the East China Sea, Chinese paramilitary maritime services and, more and more frequently, naval vessels are operating in waters around the Diaoyutai Islands, which lie approximately 170 kilometers northeast of Keelung. In other words, PLA forces are getting prolonged experience operating in waters east of Taiwan and relatively near one of Taiwan’s most important port cities, not to mention Taipei itself.
Those vessels are also getting experience operating in close proximity to potential enemy combatants and tracking and evading foreign ships. The PLA Navy’s use of fire control radar on Japanese forces earlier this year, meanwhile, has allowed it both to test combat systems in a “real-world” scenario and to test Japanese reactions.
This should all be worrying for Taipei. The experience and knowledge that China’s sailors are now gaining would be put to use in any Chinese effort to coerce or force Taiwan into a political settlement, which would likely involve the application of Beijing’s maritime power. Hostilities might very well involve naval combat—including Taiwanese efforts to break or run a blockade—and, quite possibly, Japanese intervention on Taiwan’s behalf.
But Taipei has more to worry about than the useful lessons China’s maritime services are now learning. Although the current standoff will likely continue for some time, should China eventually succeed in establishing control over the Diaoyutai islands, there would be harmful consequences for Taiwan.
First off, eventual Chinese control—or even an ongoing standoff—could mean there will be a sustained Chinese naval presence in waters near Taiwan. Even should Chinese vessels’ primary purpose be defense against Japan, they would likewise be well positioned both to act against Taiwan and to forestall Japanese intervention in a cross- Strait conflict. In effect, such presence unsettles Taiwan’s northern flank and may require Taiwan’s military to adopt an extended peacetime defensive perimeter with a consequent diminishment in concentration of forces.
Secondly, Chinese success in the Diaoyutai or, more modestly, even failure to return to the status quo ante around the islands will disruptively shift norms in Asia. Such a result would validate China’s decision to use coercion and force to achieve its ends, portending a less stable future. If Beijing can get away with such behavior in a dispute with Japan, it can certainly do so where Asia’s less powerful countries are concerned.
The abandonment of diplomatic means to settle sovereignty disputes should be of particular concern to Taiwan, which Beijing still regards as a renegade province. Considering the nature of China’s claims to the Diaoyutai, moreover, Beijing is sending forces to defend islands that it considers to be part of Taiwan province. That should give the leaders in Taipei pause as well.
How should Taiwan proceed? First, Taipei should attempt to put daylight between its own claim and Beijing’s. Failure to do so alienates Taipei from Tokyo and Washington, and puts Taiwan on a slippery slope in its own dispute with the mainland (if China has the right to defend islands that both Beijing and Taipei see as part of Taiwan, doesn’t it have the right to “defend” Kinmen, Matsu, or even Taiwan island as well?). Taiwan’s recently concluded fishing agreement with Japan was a very positive step in this direction. Second, Taipei should convey to Washington that it considers the ongoing maritime standoff as complicating its own defense and, over the longer term, detrimental to continued cross-Strait stability.
Taiwan can continue to articulate its own claims to sovereignty, but should recognize that, for the time being, stability in Asia is best served by a return to the status quo ante. Meanwhile, Taipei should continue to promote President Ma Ying-jeou’s East China Sea Peace Initiative. Not only does the initiative include substantive steps for de- escalating tensions, but it casts Taipei in positive light as compared to Beijing, thus enhancing Taiwan’s stature in the region.
Taipei, of course, has the right and an obligation to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, Taiwan can best carry out that obligation over the long term by promoting a return to the status quo ante in the East China Sea.