Ma’s South China Sea Peace Initiative
The United States created the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1955 as an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ( NATO). Founded primarily to block further Chinese Communist gains in Southeast Asia, SEATO is generally considered a failure. As a matter of fact, Sir James Cable, a diplomat and naval strategist, described the SEATO sired by the Manila Pact as “a fig leaf for the nakedness of American policy” in the Geneva Conference of 1954. He called the Manila Pact “a zoo of paper tigers.”
John Foster Dulles, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, was the prime mover behind SEATO, which was disbanded in 1977. John Kerry, U.S. secretary of state, seems to be trying to revive a different SEATO to contain the People’s Republic of China in pursuance of President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy. Kerry considers China’s expansion of military setups in the South China Sea a threat to the peace and security of the region, and is attempting to rally behind the United States all other claimants of sovereignty over the four archipelagoes in the South China Sea to confront the rising economic and military power of Asia. One latest indication of the new SEATO in the making is an ultimatum-like threat Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter raised at the annual Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore last Saturday to
tell the People’s Republic of China to end its land reclamation works in the South China Sea immediately and for good.
President Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China, the archenemy of Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic, was not invited to SEATO, though it had a Sino-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty to deter an invasion of Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. President Ma has to stake out Taiwan’s claim of sovereignty over the four South China Sea island groups of Pratas, Paracel, Spratly, and Macclesfield Bank within the ninedashed U-shaped line.
Ma proposed a South China Sea Peace Initiative last Tuesday, calling upon all countries and territories in the region to apply it in resolving disputes and developing natural resources. Drawing on its successful peacemaking experiences through the East China Sea Peace Initiative Ma proclaimed in 2012, Taiwan pledges to take the lead to advance peace and prosperity in the South China Sea. Under the new initiative, all parties are urged to observe international law; exercise restraint and refrain from taking any unilateral action; shelve sovereignty disputes and seek peaceful settlements through dialogue; and establish coordination and cooperation mechanisms. Taiwan’s successful peacemaking experiences are the easing of the tensions surrounding the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands and the signing of a landmark fisheries agreement with Japan in 2013.
By implementing integrated planning and zonal development while setting aside sovereignty disputes, President Ma believes, an equally viable path can be established with the view of resolving South China Sea issues. He urged the claimants to enter into multilateral dialogue and consultations in line with the principles of the U.N. Charter, U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other relevant international laws so as to reach consensus on a code of conduct as well as resource management and development. “The Republic of China is willing to work with its partners to pursue reciprocity and promote joint progress, transforming the South China Sea into a sea of peace and cooperation,” the president vowed.
Washington “appreciates” Ma’s new initiative. Jeff Rathke, acting U.S. Department of State deputy spokesman, said: “We, of course, appreciate Taiwan’s call on claimants to exercise restraint, to refrain from unilateral actions that could escalate tensions and to respect international Law, as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention.”
The Democratic Progressive Party, however, doesn’t like Ma’s new initiative. Joseph Wu, DPP secretary-general, questioned it as a devise for collaboration with Beijing. Wu said Ma made Japan suspect Taipei-Beijing collaboration when the East China Sea Peace Initiative was advocated; and so it stands to reason that the new Ma initiative would arouse a similar suspicion among all other claimant nations. Perhaps. But it isn’t logical to criticize Ma for chanting a “mere slogan” on that shaky ground of making the other claimant countries suspicious.
Only Way to Retain Taiwan’s
It is true that almost all claimants will not respond to Ma’s call. If they restrain themselves, it’s out of the fear that the spat may get out of control. In that sense, the South China Sea Peace Initiative may be a slogan. But it is the only way for Taiwan to retain its claim to Taiping Island or Itu Aba and the Pratas Islands where its Coast Guard stations garrisons. The People’s Republic and Vietnam have fought over the Spratlys. If Hanoi attacks Taiping Island, can Taiwan successfully defend it? The Permanent Court of Arbitration is hearing the Philippines versus China case regarding the Spratly Islands. Taiwan is not a signatory to the UNCLOS. It cannot ask for UNCLOS arbitration. If Beijing’s U-shaped line claim, which it inherits from the Republic of China, is rejected, Taiwan’s claim will be ignored.
The two archipelagoes were occupied by the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1937. Itu Aba was renamed Nagashima ( ) and used as a naval base, while a weather survey station was set up on Pratas. Both were parts of what Japan called Shin Nan Gunto (New South Islands, ) and placed under the jurisdiction of the prefecture of Takao (Kaohsiung,
of Japan’s colonial Taiwan. The New South Islands were restored together with Taiwan to the Republic of China in accordance with the Cairo Declaration of 1943 after the Second World War. The Navy of the Republic of China occupied all four archipelagoes in 1946 to make it part of its national territory. The People’s Republic stakes out its claim to the New South Islands simply because it claims Taiwan is one of its provinces.
Moreover, President Ma’s reiteration of the four island groups being inherent to the Republic of China in his South China Sea Peace Initiative has a salutary domestic effect: the clarification of Taiwan’s claims will make any subsequent changes the DPP may make or threaten to introduce less destabilizing. Parris Chang, former DPP representative in Washington who also served as deputy secretary-general of the National Security Council of President Chen Shui-bian’s government, insists that Taiwan give up its claim to the four island groups after a change of government in 2016. Tsai Ing-wen, the standard bearer of the opposition party in next year’s presidential election, who recently visited Washington to explain her “maintenance of the status quo” cross-strait policy, had to go on the record right after Ma’s proclamation of his new initiative by stating that the next DPP government won’t give up the claim to Itu Aba.