On Feb. 16, President Barack Obama and leaders of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) discussed tensions in the South China Sea, where China and several ASEAN countries continue to spar over competing territorial and jurisdictional claims.
Regional leaders remain divided over how to resolve the simmering tensions. Washington hoped to persuade ASEAN nations during the two-day trade and economic summit at the Sunnylands resort in California to agree to a joint statement calling on Beijing to respect international law and commit to a peaceful resolution. But the statement released after the summit did not even mention China.
Beijing appears to be solidifying its presence in the disputed waters through a sustained buildup of infrastructure on key re-claimed features such as Mischief and Fiery Cross Reefs. China, which has the most expansive claim to the disputed area, has condemned the U.S. freedom of navigation operation last month, in which an American guided missile destroyer came within 12 miles of the Chinese administered Triton Island.
There is little sign that China will halt its expeditious land reclamation in the area. As Obama and his Asian counterparts wrapped up the Sunnylands summit on Tuesday, U.S. and Taiwanese officials said Beijing has placed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, which is claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Taiwan may not be recognized as a state party to this dispute, but it continues to play a critical role through both its claims and administration of Taiping, the largest island in the disputed waters. Taiwan’s lame duck President Ma Ying-jeou has been at the center of the burgeoning standoff in recent months. In November Ma held a landmark meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore. It was first official interaction between mainland China and Taiwan since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Ma followed up his provocations with a visit to the disputed Taiping islet last month.
Taiping — Itu Aba as referred to by the Philippines — is the largest of the naturally occurring islands in the Spratly Chain, which covers a vast area of small reefs and islands claimed by a range of other regional states including China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Ma’s decision to visit Taiping drew widespread criticism and diplomatic rebukes especially from the Philippines and the United States. Washington expressed “disappointment,” saying the visit was “extremely unhelpful and does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.” Manila emphasized “shared responsibility” and called on all parties “to refrain from actions that can increase tension in the South China Sea.”
Beijing’s condemnation was noticeably absent. China views Taiwan’s buildup of infrastructure on Taiping as serving its own purposes under the premise that the island will likely eventually end up in its hands in a Cross-Straits reunification scenario. This creates a strategic quandary for the U.S. and its allies in Asia.
Washington has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to the security of regional allies, including the Philippine and Japan. This often translates to standing up to Chinese attempts to circumvent international law and change the status quo in the maritime domain. But Taiwan’s unique partnership with the U.S. — as enshrined through its security commitments to Taipei in the US-Taiwan Relations Act — complicates matters. Despite Washington’s assurances to protect Taipei, actions like the visit to Taiping only serve to strengthen the hand of China and go against the interests of U.S. allies in the region.
Taiwan’s future role in the South China Sea remains uncertain. Last month, Taiwanese voters ushered in a new era by electing a female president. In addition to winning the presidency, Tsai Ying-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a landmark victory in the legislative election, signaling a dramatic shift in Taiwan’s nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party–dominated politics. It appears that for now Ma has effectively handcuffed her with regard to dealings with Mainland China. DPP has traditionally voiced a strong tone of independence vis-à-vis Beijing but the President-elect has shied away from the issue on the campaign trail, even suggesting that she has no plans to “turn-back the clock” on Cross-Straits engagement.
Commenting on Ma’s visit to Taiping, Tsai toed an ambiguous line that both promotes Taiwan’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea but also calls for regional peace. She has declined to say whether she intends to visit Taiping, but it is clear that Tsai will have to factor in bilateral relations with Washington and ASEAN states as she assumes office.
Coupled with domestic political dynamics, these competing diplomatic pressures will create little wiggle-room for Tsai’s approach to the South China Sea. One area to watch will be how much Tsai looks to maintain Ma’s “South China Sea Peace Initiative,” which calls for a shelving of disputes along with an agreement from all parties to exercise restraint and work toward a peaceful resolution that relies on international law. The Initiative looks at jointly developing resources in a way that aligns with Taiwan’s approach to its dispute in the East China Sea with Japan. Friction over the Senkaku Islands (referred to as the Diaoyutai by Taiwan) has been minimized since the signing in 2013 of a fishery arrangement between the two nations in the East China Sea. The agreement, which was slammed by Beijing, allows both sides to fish cooperatively in a specified area without the fear of enforcement actions.
Taiwan suffers from a failure to gain international acceptance for its ideas — especially with regard to sovereignty. Provocative gestures, such as Ma’s visit to Taiping, will do little to further Taipei’s interest and engender positive relations with regional allies. Instead, they reinforce the idea of a common front between Taipei and Beijing against other claimants in the region. Tsai should recognize the pitfalls of such shortsighted politicking and approach the dispute with care when she assumes office later this spring.
Most Southeast Asian countries are keen to resolve the territorial disputes with China through a multilateral framework such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As a non-state party to the dispute, Taiwan needs to be cautious to calibrate its minimal leverage and not solidify fault lines between the disputants.