12.02.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Situation Unfolding Around Post-election Taiwan

maxresdefault (4)The results of the presidential and legislative elections held in Taiwan on January 16, 2016, where the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won a sweeping victory, were assessed differently by the three leading regional players, i.e., Japan, China and the US.

An important note should be made here. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1972, Japan (and the US) has followed the principle of “one China,” the reason for which it does not maintain official intergovernmental relations with Taiwan. This circumstance, however, does not affect the actual Japan-Taiwan relations, and this fact was once again emphasized by top Japanese officials. Instead, the relations between the two countries are being maintained at two levels: political — between the leaderships of the ruling parties (with the same parties forming the governments in Japan and Taiwan, respectively) and economic —between the leading companies.

Recent publications in the Japanese press suggest that the newly elected President of Taiwan is expected to pursue a foreign policy, where the significance of relations with Japan and the US will increase, while there will be some distancing from the People’s Republic of China. They also state (with reference to an identified government source) that Japan and Taiwan have some “common strategic interests.” What is implied here is a general fear of the possibility of escalation of the situation in the Taiwan Strait.

In this context, the fact that as early as January 17 (i.e., one day after the Taiwanese elections) the ambassador of Japan in Beijing was invited to the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China where he was acquainted with the Chinese position on the results of the elections, seems rather peculiar. The parties refrained from disclosing the content of their conversation, but the commentators believe that Beijing sent a message to Tokyo to “show restraint” when developing relations with the new government of Taiwan.

It is unknown what response was given, but it is hardly an accident that the announcement of the doubling of the number of F-15 fighter jets deployed on the Japanese air force base located in the Naha district of Okinawa by the end of January 2016 and the completion of the electoral process in Taiwan coincided. Not only the Senkaku islands (the ownership of which is routinely contested by Japan and Beijing), but also the Taiwan Strait will be controlled by F-15s.

It is not quite clear yet what ace China has up sleeve to counter the (seemingly inevitable) development of the Japan-Taiwan relations. In 2012-2013 (during the escalation of the conflict around the Senkaku islands), the attempts to encourage the “All-Chinese Patriotism” sentiment in the Taiwanese society fell through. At that time, joint (China-Taiwan) groups of “volunteers” were sent by fishing powerboats to these five deserted islands in the East China Sea to spread propaganda.

But “sprouts” of such “patriotism” were “uprooted” by the (not devoid of elegance) actions of Japan, when it signed a landmark pact with Taiwan granting Taiwanese fishermen the right (limited to the established quota) to fish within 200-mile radius of the cluster of Senkaku islands.

This Japanese “act of sabotage” resulted in the fact that the barely introduced “All-Chinese Patriotism” program was undermined by “human foibles.” And, although now and then Taipei makes statements confirming that the Senkaku island are part of the territory of the Republic of China (in other words, of Taiwan), they are ever more ceremonial in nature.

Japan’s “Big Brother” maintains a low-profile stance in respect to the new development of the situation regarding Taiwan. Saluting the victory of Tsai Ing-wen in the Taiwanese elections, the official representative of the State Department, John Kirby, emphasized that the US would be interested “in the continuation of cross-Strait peace and stability…” and “…further strengthening the unofficial relationship between the United States and the people on Taiwan.

It is quite possible that the positions of both leading world players on “post-election” Taiwan were harmonized in advance, during the September 2015 visit of the leader of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, to the USA. And it seems that “unofficial” was the key word in the cited J. Kirby’s quote. After all, though the situation on the island is important to each stakeholder, the scope of bilateral relations is much more voluminous than the problems related to it.

Since it is still not clear how the results of the Taiwanese elections will affect the situation in the region or the foreign policy of the island’s new leadership, Beijing, Washington and Taipei demonstrate different reactions to the trip of the outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou to the Taiping Island in the South China Sea, undertaken on January 28.

Situated 1,600 km from Taiwan, this island de facto belongs to the “Chinese Republic” (i.e., to Taiwan) since 1945 and until recently it was considered the largest in the Spratly archipelago. But since the commencement of works on the artificial enlargement of several coral reefs in Spratly by the People’s Republic of China, Taiping now ranks only fourth in terms of size.

Beijing gave a positive assessment of the visit of Ma Ying-jeou to this island (). The consistent position of the Kuomintang of China that maintains that 80% of the South China Sea belongs to China, including almost all archipelagoes, is welcomed here. This position was documented back in 1947 when the ruling Kuomintang party drafted (based on some historic sources) the so-called “nine-dash line” of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. And even to this day, the Kuomintang turns a deaf ear to Washington’s appeals to dismiss the map, on which Beijing bases its policy in the South China Sea today.

The trip of the outgoing President of Taiwan (whose tenure ends in May of this year) to Taiping was the first trying experience for the newly-elected to this post Tsai Ing-wen, who is by no means anxious to integrate into the Beijing’s “All-Chinese Patriotism” policy. As for the leadership of the DPP, it neglected this “patriotic” action, having refused to send its representatives with the delegation escorting Ma Ying-jeou.

The negative reaction of Hanoi to this trip was quite expected since Vietnam remains one of the chief claimants in the contest for the ownership the entire Spratly archipelago.

Assessment of the trip given by the US was not so harsh (and it was actually expressed unofficially). The day before, a representative of the American Institute in Taiwan (de facto carrying out duties of the American embassy in Taipei) expressed “disappointment” with Ma Ying-jeou’s plan to visit the island of Taiping because it could undermine the process of peaceful settlement of disagreements in the South China Sea.

It seems that the somewhat reserved attitude of the US to the matter can be fully explained by the need to employ the People’s Republic of China as an instrument for the resolution of ongoing political challenges existing in the region, with the current activation of the Pyongyang’s nuclear missile program being number one. To encourage Beijing to adopt a tougher policy toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, US State Secretary, John Kerry, visited China at the end of January.

However, it should be reminded that the general US policy in relation to China can be characterized by military and political containment. The US would also be interested in the incorporation of the People’s Republic of China into the global political and economic structures controlled by Washington. The current situation (in particular, on the Korean Peninsula) compels the US to once again revitalize the “constructive” component.

It was hardly a coincidence that right after the Taiwanese elections a three-year-old correspondence between high level US and Japanese foreign service officials, pertaining to the anticipated at that time acquisition of three of the five Senkaku islands by Japan from some “private owner,” leaked to press. The then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell, called his colleague from the Foreign Ministry of Japan to take into consideration Beijing’s stance on the matter to avoid escalation of the situation around the Senkaku islands. But this appeal from “Big Brother” had no effect on Japan’s final decision, and Mr. Campbell’s premonitions came true in the course of subsequent events.

What can be concluded is that the US and China, the two major global players, still manage to keep the situation evolving around the post-election Taiwan under control. And that is already an impressive achievement per se, especially in the light of the recent escalation of tension in the South China Sea (but this situation should be reviewed separately).

On the other hand, the initial reactions of Japan and China to the results of the Taiwanese elections evidence that the relations between these leading Asian powers should be watched closely.

Vladimir Terekhov, an expert, specialized on the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”