Taiwan Can't Save the South China Sea

Despite its best intentions, Taiwan cannot be a major player in solving the South China Sea dispute.

As the international community digests reports that China is placing weapons on artificial islands it is building in disputed areas of the South China Sea, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has launched a new peace plan for the region.

Speaking at a meeting of lawyers, analysts and scholars held in Taipei to discuss the role of international law in Asia-Pacific integration, Ma outlined his South China Sea Peace Initiative – a plan that aims to “peacefully resolve disputes in the South China Sea.”

Given Ma’s marginalization within Taiwan, and Taiwan’s marginalization among South China Sea claimants, this was a bold attempt to establish both his own and Taiwan’s relevance. However it has next to no chance of success.

Like Ma’s previous East China Sea Peace Initiative, which was ignored by both China and Japan, and his China Peace Accord, which was dropped from his re-election campaign after provoking a negative reaction in pre-election polls, the latest of Ma’s missives is a high-minded vision that he is in no position to deliver. While it is perhaps admirable that Ma’s government “hopes to be a responsible stakeholder and a regional peacemaker,” the reality is harsh but clear: it simply is not going to be acknowledged as one.

The flaws in the peace initiative are not solely down to Taiwan’s marginalization. Recent developments in this perennial territorial dispute make it virtually impossible for anyone to emerge as a non-partisan deal breaker. The Philippines government is questioning the legal validity of China’s “9-dash line”—a line China has drawn on a map to claim contested areas of the South China Sea—in the international courts, and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague is set to rule on the matter soon. Meanwhile Vietnam is supporting the Philippines’ case despite both sides having overlapping claims.

China, for its part, appears to have ceased pretending there might be a shadow of benign intention behind its actions in the South China Sea, possibly pre-empting a legal ruling in the Philippines’ favor, which Beijing will ignore but not be able to make disappear. And, in the face of overt Chinese expansion in the region, the United States appears to have finally dropped its scarcely credible insistence that it does not hold a position on the dispute.

Against this geopolitical backdrop sits this new peace initiative from Taiwan. But let us not forget that Taiwan has identical South China Sea claims to that of China. This occasionally raises fears among some in the Asia-Pacific that it might cooperate with Beijing and thus Taiwan’s credibility among the region’s other claimants is, by default, damaged goods.

Ma’s peace plan is an attempt to convince the region that Taiwan approaches the dispute in a very different way to China. But his strategy falls well short of what is required. It is understandable that Taiwan may not feel comfortable in heeding calls to clarify its interpretation of the original 9-dash line (the line was drawn during the last years of the Republic of China’s presence on the Chinese mainland), not least because it would anger China. However, this position is becoming increasingly untenable. If the Philippines succeed in its court case, and international judges rule the 9-dash line to be legally baseless, how much longer would Taiwan be willing to stick with it? Ma cannot have it both ways.

With its emphasis on peace and prosperity, reconciliation and cooperation, and adherence to international law, Ma’s rhetoric hits the right notes. But substance is lacking. Ma has publicly applauded “the successful experiences of my administration in promoting peace in the region, first in the Taiwan Strait, then in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.” Notwithstanding the warming of cross-Strait relations following Ma’s early and unequivocal embrace of the one-China principle, these claims are, to put it charitably, overblown. And in light of China’s unilateral efforts to “establish facts on the ground” in the South China Sea, Ma’s rhetorical commitment to the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes borders on irrelevance.

Ma previously put forward his East China Sea Peace Initiative in August 2012, immediately prior to Japan’s decision to “nationalize” the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that it controls, which in turn precipitated rising tensions with China. The plan demanded that the actors involved should “shelve disputes, respect international law, resolve disagreements peacefully, and negotiate sharing resources and cooperative development.”