Playing the adult in the Diaoyutais

Article Highlights

  • Watching the recent developments across Asia, one cannot help but wonder where the grownups went.

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  • Yet with regional tensions at their highest in years, Taiwan, it turns out, is trying to play the adult in the room.

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  • As challenging as the Asian maritime territorial disputes are, they provide Taiwan an opportunity to play a constructive role in the region.

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Watching the recent developments across Asia, one cannot help but wonder where the grownups went.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visits Dokdo (known as Takeshima in Japan) and demands that the Japanese emperor apologize for colonial rule of Korea. In response, Japanese observers start discussing a renunciation of the 1993 Yohei Kono apology for the comfort women atrocities. Meanwhile, the Japanese government allows itself to be maneuvered into nationalizing ownership of three of the Senkaku-Diaoyutai (釣魚台) Islands. Beijing asserts that Tokyo has hurt the feelings of all 1.3 billion Chinese people (quite the feat!) and then sends surveillance ships into the vicinity of the islands.

In these latest crises, the actions of each government seem to be driven, in large part, by an outpouring of visceral nationalism. Each government’s crisis resolution proposal seems to go something like this: “Recognize my claim or else.” Sure, Tokyo’s agreement to purchase the Senkakus was actually meant to freeze escalation, but Beijing and Taipei seem unwilling or unable to recognize that fact.

Yet with regional tensions at their highest in years, Taiwan, it turns out, is trying to play the adult in the room. Taiwan has, as a matter of course, reasserted its own claims. And Taipei’s actions have not been without bluster. On Wednesday last week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recalled its representative to Tokyo in protest at the plan to nationalize the disputed islands. The next day, Taipei invited reporters to observe a coast guard duty changeover and exercises involving the vessels’ cannons in waters near the disputed islands. Taiwan, like China and Japan, is guilty of contributing to escalating tension in the East China Sea.

However, just as notable has been President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) “East China Sea Peace Initiative.” Ma first announced the plan in a speech last month on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Republic of China-Japan peace treaty and has provided more details in the six weeks since. The five-point plan calls on the concerned parties (Taiwan, Japan and China to start) to avoid provocative acts and set disputes aside, to follow international law and establish a code of conduct, and to find ways to pursue cooperative resource development. Ma has even suggested a willingness to submit to binding international mediation.

Ma seems to understand the difficulty of launching such a peace initiative, which is exacerbated by Taiwan’s unique international status. And like his counterparts in Beijing and Tokyo, Ma faces domestic constraints as well; for one thing, he must avoid the appearance of colluding with Beijing to avoid attacks from the left (and to avoid further alienating Tokyo and frustrating Washington).

However, his guidelines, on the whole, are more sensible than idealistic. For example, the president proposes that Taipei, Beijing and Tokyo should proceed at first with bilateral consultations on topics of concern instead of engaging in immediate trilateral talks, which Ma knows would likely be a deal breaker, but which he believes can come later. (Of course, whether Taiwan could hold its own in simultaneous talks with the giants to its north and west, let alone in potential trilateral negotiations, is an open question). And Ma is similarly realistic in proposing that negotiations on maritime security be limited to the realms of law enforcement exchanges and marine rescue cooperation.

Still, even if Ma’s proposal looks good on paper, this begs the question: Will anybody listen? Beijing and Tokyo have, as of yet, failed to directly address the “East China Sea peace initiative.” With emotions running high and domestic political considerations to take into account, neither China nor Japan may at present be able to shift to more conciliatory postures — indeed, Taiwan has found this difficult as well even with Ma pushing his peace initiative. However, if tensions slowly fade, as they have during past crises, the leaders in Tokyo and Beijing may begin casting about for ways to avoid future confrontations or at least ensure that such rows do not get out of hand. Taipei’s plan, at the very least, could be a good place for them to start. And if the three interested parties in the Senkaku/Diaoyutai disputes have even a modicum of success in carrying out the peace initiative (or something similar) — certainly, a very big “if” — it could provide useful lessons for Japan and South Korea and for the South China Sea as well.

As challenging as the Asian maritime territorial disputes are, they provide Taiwan an opportunity to play a constructive role in the region. The trick is figuring out how to do so. To the extent Taipei can seize that opportunity, it will find itself a more critical player in promoting regional peace and stability in the coming years.

Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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