This week President Ma Ying-jeou of the Republic of China (ROC) made a visit to Taiping Island in the hotly contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The US, a strong backer of Taiwan, criticised the trip as 'extremely unhelpful' and 'raising tensions...rather than descalation'.
President Ma at a Taiwan naval exercise near Taipei, 2014.
For Ma, whose Kuomintang (KMT) has suffered crushing defeats in the last two elections and is now locked in a grim struggle between bitter-enders and conservatives over the party chairmanship, the trip represented a thumb in the eye to the US and other regional powers, and to the future foreign policy of incoming Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President Tsai Ing-wen.
Beijing had little to say apart from reiterating its boilerplate claim to most of the South China Sea.
Since his election in 2008, Ma has insisted on periodically reminding everyone that the South China Sea belongs to the ROC as the government of all Chinese territory. The ROC and PRC claims are essentially the same. Ma and his supporters presented the trip as a gesture of peace, but it is also intended to reinforce ROC claims to the area — Ma has stated that the island gives the ROC a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone around it — and to highlight Ma's 2015 South China Sea Peace Initiative, which has garnered little attention outside Taiwan.
At a press conference upon returning, Ma repeated his longstanding call for a resolution that permits resource sharing: 'All parties concerned must work together to establish a cooperation mechanism and set aside territorial disputes in favor of peaceful resolution. Such a collaborative framework can ensure equal participation and resource sharing without undermining any rights and interests.'
Unlike many outsiders, Ma, an ideologue who views himself as Chinese and his nation as 'China', understands that one of the props of the tenuous existence of the ROC is its remaining territorial claims. Seen in this light, this trip was not a site visit so much as a pilgrimage to one of the few places where the ROC still unequivocally exists. Indeed, Ma returned home to defiantly state that the ROC did not need US permission to visit Taiping Island (US pressure forced Ma to shelve a previous visit and send an underling). A lame duck president already the subject of US ire, Ma has little to lose with Washington at this point.
These divisions with Washington and between Taiwan and its natural allies in the area look to many observers suspiciously like deliberate policy. Taipei and Beijing in fact see eye to eye on South China Sea territories, each mutually reinforcing the 'Chinese' claims in the area. Many locals muttered that the real purpose of the trip was to serve China because it is believed Ma is planning to retire there after he steps down in May.
By contrast, in her visit to the US prior to the election last year, then DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen echoed the language of Washington, saying 'a future DPP administration will be committed to following both international law, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and respecting the freedom of navigation.'
The Ma Administration's insistence on ownership of the South China Sea will be a headache for the new Tsai Administration's relations with states bordering the South China Sea, which Taiwan urgently needs to upgrade. Although these states face the same problem of Chinese expansion in the area (Taiwan itself is a long-term target of the current wave of expansion), the ROC claims to the South China Sea handicap its ability to work in a multilateral framework to oppose Beijing. Obviously, Taiwan cannot oppose China if, in some way, it is China.
Though Taiwan itself has little interest in maintaining a presence on an indefensible island far from home, Tsai's domestic opponents will insist that as President she maintain the nation's territorial claims. Beijing reinforces this: it has threatened to attack the islands should Taiwan attempt to give them up or renounce the nine-dash line claim. Yet Washington will demand that Tsai walk softly, even as the US itself promises to 'push harder' on the South China Sea. Balancing these competing pressures will be difficult, and Ma's visit to Taiping does not help.
The trip also highlights other fallout from the overlapping claims of the CCP and the KMT. Those who argue that Taiwan should annex itself to China to achieve 'peace' often neglect the fact that the ROC controls Dongsha (Woody) Island and Taiping (Itu Aba) Island in the Spratlys. Were Taiwan to end up in Chinese hands, these islands would likely fall under Chinese control, giving a dramatic boost to its presence in the South China Sea. This will only stimulate the already alarming regional arms buildup and give China, which has long eyed Indonesia's Natuna Islands and was just caught exploring new claims off Malaysian Borneo, impetus for further expansion in the area. None of that will be good for peace in the region.
Photo by TPG/Getty Images