Asian-Pacific Territorial Disputes Escalate
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
August 8, 2012
Summary: Long-standing sovereignty disputes continue to bedevil the Asian-Pacific region. Several nations are at loggerheads over the four Northern Islands, Dokdo/Takeshima, Diaoyutai, and the Nansha Islands. In recent years these disputes have further intensified. They have even led to direct clashes. They threaten peace in the Asian-Pacific region. The Republic of China asserts sovereignty and jurisdiction over the Diaoyu Islands and Nansha Islands. Needless to say, it cannot remain aloof. It must be deeply concerned about the situation.
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Long-standing sovereignty disputes continue to bedevil the Asian-Pacific region. Several nations are at loggerheads over the four Northern Islands, Dokdo/Takeshima, Diaoyutai, and the Nansha Islands. In recent years these disputes have further intensified. They have even led to direct clashes. They threaten peace in the Asian-Pacific region. The Republic of China asserts sovereignty and jurisdiction over the Diaoyu Islands and Nansha Islands. Needless to say, it cannot remain aloof. It must be deeply concerned about the situation.
Basically these sovereignty disputes are intensifying. A major cause is the rapid growth of Mainland China's military might. It is projecting its power into to the Pacific. It is attempting to breakthrough the Japanese-US island chain currently containing Mainland China. It is colliding with the powers currently occupying the region. The flashpoint will be disputes concerning territory or territorial waters. The United States is responding. It has begun its return to the Asian-Pacific region. This has emboldened other nations. This has encouraged them to thumb their noses at Mainland China. The US, they now assume, now has their back. A few days ago the U.S. State Department harshly criticized Mainland China for establishing Sansha City, a municipality to preside over three South China Sea islands. This provoked a vehement response from Mainland China. Mainland China and the US were clearly exchanging blows.
Meanwhile the global recession has discredited the governments of many nations. The influence of right-wing populist elements has been enhanced. Sovereignty disputes are often tools for domestic political struggles. They often force governments to draw lines in the sand. They often enable ultranationalist organizations to hijack their governments. They sometimes lead to foreign military quagmires.
In fact, most international disputes over sovereignty cannot be resolved through negotiations. If one cannot use force, then all one can do is protest. As a result, the sovereignty remains in dispute. This has long been the case for the Diaoyutai Islands dispute and South China Sea dispute. In recent years confrontations have intensified. Military intervention has become more frequent. For example, PRC fleets and Mainland Chinese fishing boats have repeatedly entered Diaoyutai Island waters. ROC Coast Guard ships have escorted Diaoyutai Islands Defense Movement activists to the Diaoyutai Islands to proclaim sovereignty. Warships belonging to Mainland China and the Philippines have clashed in the Huangyan Islands.
All nations claim they want dialogue and the peaceful resolution of disputes. The international community agrees. In fact this is hypocritical lip service. Few people ever want dialogue during territorial sovereignty disputes. The reason is simple. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. Nations in actual possession of the disputed territories do not want to talk to others. Doing so merely undermines their ownership claims. Other nations gain nothing from talks. For them, there is nothing to talk about. The recent ASEAN meeting originally wanted the South China Sea Code of Conduct included in the joint declaration, But they were unable to reach an agreement, so they gave up on the idea. As one can see, sovereignty disputes are not easy resolved by diplomatic means. Therefore they will only drag on.
President Ma Ying-jeou recently attended the 60th anniversary of the Sino-Japanese Peace Treaty. He reiterated the Republic of China's sovereignty over the islands. He also offered a five-point peace initiative for the East China Sea. One. Self-restraint. Do not escalate the antagonisms. Two. Shelve disputes. Do not give up on dialogue and communications. Three. Comply with international law. Settle disputes through peaceful means. Four. Seek consensus. Establish an East China Sea Code of Conduct. Five. Establish a mechanism for the development of East China Sea resources.
Ma Ying-jeou is an expert on international and maritime law. In particular, he has conducted in-depth research on the Diaoyutai Islands sovereignty dispute. According to reports, the proposed peace initiative for the East China Sea was drawn up by the ROC National Security Council. The ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs notified Japan and other nations through unofficial channels. But so far none of the the parties have responded. This is not surprising. Other nations have no intention of engaging in more active diplomatic consultations. Moreover, Beijing does not want the ROC to take part in this territorial dispute in the name of a sovereign state. Japan is worried that Taipei and Beijing will join hands to defend the nation's territory against annexation by Japan. As for the cooperative development of resources, that is hardly a pressing issue. At this time any concrete move to develop regional resources would be regarded as serious provocation.
The ROC government has issued a five-point proposal for the Diaoyutai Islands. Diplomatically, this keeps our hand in the game. This reaffirms our sovereignty. This is a necessary political gesture. Otherwise, if we stand by without saying anything, our role in the controversy will gradually shrink.
The most concrete and specific of these five points is "Self-restraint. Do not escalate the antagonism." This clearly refers to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, with their declared intention of "purchasing" the three Diaoyutai Islands. The two men are engaged in domestic political struggle. They are ignoring the diplomatic consequences of raising tensions with Mainland China. Diaoyutai for them may be a tool for domesic political struggle. But it is one that could lead to Sino-Japanese conflict. It is sure to impact the strategic picture and economic development in the Asian-Pacific region. It is not something anyone would be happy to see. It is not even something that the US, which longs to "contain" Mainland China, would be happy to see.
Territorial disputes may be intractable. But national policy must not allow disputes to undermine the national interest. This includes the Diaoyutai Islands sovereignty dispute in the Asian-Pacific region. Problems should be resolved peacefully and pragmatically. President Ma's clarion call merits the nation's attention.