by Chiaming Shen
Recently, the territorial dispute between Taipei, Beijing and Tokyo over the Diaoyutai (Senkaku) Islands in the East China Sea has been escalating. Noda Akihito, the former premier of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), initiated the Diaoyutai Islands “nationalization plan,” prompting the Taiwanese government to launch an official protest. Taiwanese fishing boats sailed to the Diaoyutai Islands along with the vessels of Coast Guard Administration (CGA) to protect fishing rights and territorial claims. At the same time, a series of anti-Japanese demonstrations erupted in Mainland China as military tension between Japan and China continues to rise. The political deadlock has raised widespread concern and harmed both regional stability and the progress of free trade in East Asia.
On August 5, 2012, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou proposed an “East China Sea Peace Initiative” to resolve the deadlock in the region . According to the initiative, while the sovereignty of Diaoyutai (Senkaku) Islands belongs to Taiwan, the Taiwanese government is willing to cooperate with Japan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in order to exploit the area’s resources. The initiative proposes that through talks and negotiations, confidence-building measures (CBMs) could be established in order to avoid potential military conflicts. President Ma has suggested that such negotiations should be institutionalized in a similar manner to the six-party talks over the Korean Peninsula.
Initially, President Ma suggests the East China Sea Peace Initiative talks should be bilateral, between Taiwan and Japan in order to create consensus on controversial issues (including sovereignty and fishing rights). In fact, Taiwan signed an agreement over fishing rights with Japan in April of 2013. Through mutual trust and negotiation, the talks could then be extended trilaterally to include Taiwan, Mainland China and Japan. In an attempt to avoid the deadlock in traditional “first track” diplomacy, scholars and experts in international law and economics could exchange ideas via “second track” academic and diplomatic exchange. This practice could help to resolve the issues of mutual acknowledgement and sovereignty disputes in cross-strait relationships while officials in the first track would continue to play an important role in signing official accords in fishing rights and resource exploitation. Second track diplomatic efforts would create a platform to exchange ideas, while the first track would remain a meaningful symbol of regional peace and mutual trust.
In 2002, the PRC signed the “Declaration on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea” with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The declaration was based on the United Nations “Convention on the Law of the Sea.” However, Taiwan is not party to ASEAN due to opposition from the PRC—as such, Taiwan’s claims to the islands currently receive no recognition. Even the sovereignty of Taiping Island (the largest island in the South China Sea) is disputed, which is why second track diplomatic efforts are so important to Taiwan and the region as a whole. As such, the East China Sea Peace Initiative should be promoted in the same framework as the Taiwan Relation Act (TRA) and the US-Japan alliance. Above all, promoting this initiative to international society should be considered a first priority, and should be carried out through rigorous public diplomacy.
In fact, the PRC has previously reached a consensus on mutual exploitation in the East China Sea with Japan during the Hu-Fukuda era (2007/9-2008/9). Both states also signed an agreement to promote Sino-Japanese strategic and mutually beneficial relationships. Taiwan was also excluded from these mutual, multilateral talks because Taiwan did not have official diplomatic relations with Japan. This may be one reason why President Ma has chosen to emphasize the current peace initiative. Some negotiations are already under way between Taiwan and Japan, but are limited to discussions over fishing rights (the Diaoyutai Islands have been the most important fishing fields for Taiwanese fishermen since the Japanese occupation during the Second World War).
However, just as Randy Schriver, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs has stated, “The US could not fulfill its defense obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) without the US-Japan alliance.” Taiwan, as a small power in the international realm needs to take the structure of great powers, such as the PRC, the US and Japan into consideration. In this kind of issue, it is better to be rational and practical, rather than to appeal to populist domestic considerations. Populism and nationalism might win support domestically, but would not be beneficial for regional peace and the national interest, hence President Ma’s diplomatic and sensitive proposal.
Any discussion over sovereignty in the region is contentious. The notion of national sovereignty is a vital concept in the Westphalian system and has been reinforced by the charter of the United Nations. From the Taiwanese perspective, the Diaoyutai islands constitute a part of continental shelf of Taiwan and as such, following the UN Law of the Sea, the sovereignty of these islands should belong to Taiwan. However, it could be beneficial to re-define the modern notion of sovereignty. For example, the European Union (EU) has removed internal borders and formed an economic and monetary union. Member states within the EU lose some aspects of their national sovereignty, but they also gain a number of benefits from enhanced regional stability.
This regional integration has gone hand in hand with increased economic interdependence, and may point the way forward for other regions. For example, the territorial disputes over the North Sea Oil Fields are a potential template for resolutions in East Asia. In 1969, Germany had their territorial claim validated under a judgment from the International Court of Justice (ICJ); however, Germany still cooperated with Denmark and Netherlands to exploit the oil field jointly in the North Sea. Brent crude has become a symbol of regional peace and cooperation. The issue of sovereignty in the era of international economic interdependence is no longer a zero-sum game, as such cooperation to exploit oil resources demonstrates. Economic integration can have a positive spillover effect, potentially helping to reduce the possibilities of military conflict. It is never too late to discuss building up the East Asian community in a similar manner to the EU.
The complex and often painful history of the region, while important, should not be the starting point for future discussions amongst potential regional partners. In Europe, the past rivals in WWII, French and Germany were the core founding members of EU. In a similar fashion, through peaceful talks and negotiations, President Ma’s proposed East China Sea Peace Initiative could become a milestone of regional stability in East Asia. The initiative could be used as a template for other disputed regions as well, such as the South China Sea territorial dispute between Taiwan and the Philippines. Taiwan has much to offer in regards to promoting regional progress, and should continue to share positive ideas with other countries in order to play a more active role in the regional peace.
Chiaming Shen attended the UCLA Summer Session in 2013, and is a Masters candidate in East Asian studies from the National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan.