The Taiwan Factor

Taiwan is wading back into the waters. On May 15, the Taiwanese government announced the expansion of wide-ranging sanctions against the Philippines. It is the latest development in a deepening rift that began with the fatal shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman by the Philippine coast guard on May 9. Though skirmishes in disputed waters have taken place before, the unusually strong response from Taipei is indicative of the country’s push to stay relevant in a neighbourhood where it is overshadowed by larger neighbours.

Anti-Philippine protests have taken place in Taiwan.

Old Claims, New Games

Taiwan’s foray into the complexities of Asian maritime politics is one with deep historical roots. The country has long had a number of overlapping land-claims with other countries in the region, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (China and Japan), the Spratly Islands (China, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines), Scarborough Shoal (China and the Philippines), and the Paracel Islands (China, Vietnam).The majority of these disputes predate the Chinese civil war, resulting in nearly identical Chinese and Taiwanese claims. These leads to one side inevitably crossing the other in enforcing its claims, though some instances, namely the current rift between Taiwan and the Philippines, have seen China taking the side of their historical enemy.  Cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan have warmed considerably under Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration, but they are still prone to tense flair-ups.

Escalating tensions between Taiwan and the Philippines serve as an example of Taipei’s push to exert greater maritime authority in the region. Though Philippine President Benigno Aquino has sent a representative to Taiwan to convey his apologies, Taipei has rebuffed this as “flippant” and unsatisfactory. Taiwan has enacted sanctions against the Philippines while demanding full compensation and the opening of fishing talks in disputed waters. This posturing is further bolstered by the Taiwanese military’s recent Han Kuang series of military exercises and naval exercises on May 16, sending Manila and other regional actors a stark reminder of the country’s formidable war-fighting assets.

The exercises, simulating a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attack on the island of Penghu and involving nearly 8000 troops, are the most extensive of their kind since President Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency began in 2008.This row is a reminder not only of the many territorial fault-lines in the Asia-Pacific, but also encapsulates Taiwan’s drive for increased leverage in dealing with its neighbours.

The renewed vigour with which Taiwan is pursuing dormant territorial claims complicates an already-complex geopolitical landscape, and is hardly restricted to the Philippines. Though most international attention on the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute has been focused on China and Japan, Taiwan very much remains a key player in what has historically been a three-way feud. Much to the chagrin of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan and Japan are beginning to tow a similar line with the conclusion of a fishing agreement in April allowing Taiwanese fishermen to use most of the Japanese-controlled area around the islands. In addition to the material benefits accrued, this has had the added benefit for Japan of drawing Taiwan into its camp regarding ownership of the islands. This agreement underscores the complicating nature of greater Taiwanese involvement: balancing the pursuit of national interests with the close cross-strait relations for which President Ma has worked so hard.

Stepping back

The Taiwanese leadership is making a concerted effort to remind neighbours of their ability to project naval power into the South China Sea; however, this may prove to be overly ambitious. The sheer number of Taiwanese maritime claims – poorly-defined relics of a bygone era – is simply incongruent with existing capabilities. In the midst of transitioning from conscription to an all-volunteer force, the Taiwanese military has been plagued with a shortage of volunteers and a cash-strapped budget. The heroism once associated with military service in Taiwan has largely evaporated. It is estimated that a defense budget increase from 2.2% to 3% is required to achieve the transition from 235,000 service members to 176,000 by 2015. It is difficult to imagine that Beijing would be happy with this budget increase, and given President Ma’s commitment to maintaining close cross-strait relations, it is unlikely that this goal will be met. These factors all point to Taipei’s hopes of asserting greater control in the South and East China Seas as being little more than a pipedream.

The Taiwanese response is relatively logical: no Taiwanese leader wishes to be seen as weak, but with the Mainland not nearly the bogeyman it was in decades past, the country is seeking other avenues to showcase its strength. The death of a Taiwanese national in disputed waters has provided an ideal opportunity for this, all without directly provoking Beijing. However, President Ma’s sabre-rattling is doing no favours in a region already fraught with maritime tension, as the ramifications may be considerably more damaging to his country than anticipated. Given statements from PLA Generals indicating that China supports the Taiwanese response, policymakers in Taipei may find themselves setting an uncomfortable precedent of having the Mainland intervening on their behalf, much as a national government might for a local government. This will only reinforce Beijing’s longstanding claim that the island is little more than a renegade province. Taipei should step back from the brink, and work to dial down tension with Manila by accepting President Aquino’s apology and working to ensure that similar incidents do not occur again. They can ill afford to alienate their few remaining diplomatic partners.

Daniel Bodirsky

About Daniel Bodirsky

Daniel is an Asia-Pacific Research Analyst with the NATO Association of Canada. He is currently an MSc candidate in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Daniel was previously based in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he wrote freelance for a number of online publications and tutors English. Daniel’s research interests concern security in the Asia-Pacific, specifically the rise of China-balancing coalitions in Southeast Asia and Canadian interests in the region. He is a former Program Editor at the NAOC. Daniel received his BAH from Queen’s University, where he majored in Political Studies with a Minor in World Languages (German, French, Japanese). Contact: danielbodirsky@gmail.com Twitter: @danbodirsky