Could Taiwan Solve the East China Sea?

A new diplomatic initiative.

Beijing’s unanticipated, unilateral announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on November 23 over maritime areas in the East China Sea further heightened tensions in what has already become an increasingly volatile situation. The new ADIZ not only encompasses the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai/Diaoyu island chain but also the submerged Iedo/Suyan Rock, a point of dispute between the People’s Republic of China and South Korea. It is particularly curious that Beijing would up the ante with Seoul, especially at a time when it was scoring points in South Korea over the lingering World War II history debate with Tokyo.

No one, of course, anticipates a military confrontation over a series of unoccupied rocks in the East China Sea. However, as U.S. Vice President Biden pointed out, during a speech at Seoul’s Yonsei University during his recent East Asian trip, "the possibility of miscalculation, of a mistake, is real. "Such was the case, almost one hundred years ago, when a motorcade took a wrong turn in the Balkan city of Sarajevo on June 24, 1914. The resulting assassination of the Austrian Archduke led to a worldwide conflagration. A similar mistake could upend the tranquility that has allowed East Asia to make such remarkable economic progress in the past three decades.

Taiwan has pointed the way for defusing those tensions that only last year triggered the most violent anti-Japanese demonstrations to be seen in mainland China in a number of years. A fishery agreement, signed by Taipei and Tokyo earlier this year after seventeen years of deadlocked negotiations, allows for an amiable distribution of marine products, including those from waters in the vicinity of the Senkaku/Diaoyutai/Diaoyu islands. By avoiding mention of the underlying sovereignty claims, the agreement provides a concrete example of how to proceed in a nonconfrontational manner. Taiwanese fishermen were seen as greatly benefiting from the agreement, with an additional 1,400 square nautical miles of waters being made available to them. Some eight hundred Taiwanese trawlers will now reportedly be able to peacefully catch more than 40,000 tons of fish in these waters each year.

This is not to imply that Taiwan has not taken an assertive stance regarding its air rights vis-a-vis Beijing's new ADIZ. Taiwan's Minister of Defense publicly pledged on December 2, with regard to the newly announced ADIZ, that the nation's military would "stand firm to defend the sovereignty of the Republic of China (ROC)."

At a ceremony held December 1 to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the issuance of the Cairo Declaration, President Ma stated that" "the ROC's Air Force will continue to carry out exercises and training activities as normal in the ROC's air defense identification zone, but the ROC will go through channels to express to mainland Chinese authorities its serious concern about this situation, which stems mainly from the fact that mainland China did not consult Taiwan before announcing its ADIZ in the East China Sea." President Ma noted further that it is in the interest of maintaining peace in the East China Sea and reducing tensions in the region for "all parties involved to avoid any action that would exacerbate tensions."

President Ma had laid out a concrete road map in August 2012 on how to avoid confrontation over sovereignty and disputed resource issues in the East China Sea, titled the "East China Sea Peace Initiative." His proposal calls upon the parties "to replace confrontation with dialogue" and "shelve territorial disputes through negotiations," recognizing that emotional territorial claims only fan the flames of nationalism, threatening possible military confrontation. Pointing out that "while sovereignty is indivisible, resources can be shared," the initiative puts the focus on the joint development of abundant East China Sea natural resources, including minerals and marine life, which can lead to a win-win situation for all parties concerned without the historic baggage of territorial disputes. The partnership developed through the sharing of resources is also a natural means for reducing tensions.

No one can deny that the brewing confrontation over territorial issues in the East China Sea, further inflamed by unresolved historic issues and Beijing's newly announced ADIZ, is a potential threat to the peace and prosperity of the most economically vibrant region in the world. Taiwan, however, through the East China Sea Peace Initiative, has pointed the way on how to step back from the abyss before smoldering passions get out of control. Negotiations and a cool-headed distribution of resources are not only in everyone's self-interest but also represent the one clear means to avoid that kind of miscalculation about which Vice President Biden expressed deep concern.

Dennis P. Halpin is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Rico Shen. CC BY-SA 2.0.