Taiwan Rebalances in the Near Seas

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 16

President Ma Ying-jeou Announces the East China Sea Peace Initiative

At a forum held in Taipei on August 5th commemorating the 60th anniversary of the peace treaty signed between the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) and Japan following the second Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou announced his administration’s East China Sea Peace Initiative (donghai heping changyi). The initiative, which was unveiled at the outset of Ma’s second term, included five major points for China and Japan: (1) refrain from antagonistic conduct; (2) shelve controversies and maintain dialogue; (3) observe international law and settle disputes through peaceful means; (4) create a code of conduct; and (5) establish a mechanism for cooperation on exploring and developing the East China Sea (ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, August 5). Taipei, Tokyo and Beijing all claim the islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku Islands or the Diaoyutai/dao. In an apparent effort to link the ongoing, albeit currently stalled, efforts to establish a code of conduct in the South China Sea with the new initiative “to make legally binding a commitment to peaceful resolutions of sovereignty disputes over the South China Sea, the ministry [Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs] said Taiwan hoped a similar initiative could be negotiated to address disputes over the East China Sea” (Taipei Times, August 6). While some observers have cast a skeptical light on the efficacy of Taipei’s role in the Near Seasindeed, the initiative itself does not represent anything newin light of the growing tension in the region, these moves by the Taiwanese authorities at the very least may signal a rebalancing of the island’s strategy toward the East China and South China Seas (Asia Times, August 10) [1]. Ostensibly, Taipei is changing its Near Seas policy from a passive to a more active assertion of ROC (Taiwan) sovereignty vis-à-vis the PRC over the disputed islets.

The East China Sea Peace Initiative dovetails recent calls by Taiwanese legislators for the government to beef up the island’s military deployments in the South China Sea. These calls were followed by local reports that Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense will reinforce the country’s defense assets on Taiping Island, which is part of the Spratly Island group. To be sure, ruling-Kuomintang (KMT) Legislator Lin Yu-fang, convener of the Legislature’s foreign affairs and national defense committee, revealed that 120-millimeter mortars and 40-millimeter anti-aircraft guns were shipped to the island last week and installation has since begun. The weapons were transferred by the Ministry of National Defense to Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration (CGA), which is responsible for defending the islands (Focus Taiwan, August 12). Patrol missions supported by the Taiwanese coastguard reportedly take place at least three times a year in March, June and September (United Daily News, June 15, 2011). Taiwan also operates an airstrip with a 3,800-foot-long, 100-foot-wide cement path on Taiping Island. Recent reports suggest Taiwan may be looking to undertake a project to extend the runway by 500 meters (Taiwan Today, July 23).

Against the backdrop of increased maritime friction in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and more regular large-scale military exercises in the region conducted by Chinese military forces and maritime enforcement agencies, Taiwan has stepped up the visibility of its maritime patrols in surrounding waters (Taiwan Today, August 13). Taiwan’s increased presence in contested waters along its periphery, however, has led to an increasing number of incidents with other claimants over disputed territories.

A recent stand-off between Taiwanese activists and the Japanese Coast Guard in early July—which involved several activists from Taiwan sailing to the disputed islands in the East China Sea accompanied by the Taiwanese Coast Guard—however, highlighted once again the often neglected claim and role that Taiwan (ROC) has to play over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands (Taipei Times, August 6). Amid growing tensions between China, Vietnam and the Philippines, the Taiwanese government similarly announced that legislators from Taiwan’s parliament would again be visiting Taiping Island in mid September (Focus Taiwan, July 24). While Taiwan traditionally had adopted a low-key approach to managing maritime disputes vis-à-vis other claimants, including China, Taiwan seems to be recalibrating its strategy toward the contested territories in an apparent effort to rebalance the changing strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific.

While intended to preserve ROC sovereignty and perhaps to enhance Taipei’s negotiating position with Beijing, these moves also could have the long-term effect of limiting the international space of Taiwan if it is seen to be only defending sovereignty claims over disputed territories shared with Beijing.

The Perils of Overlapping Claims

The complexity of Taiwan’s position in these territorial disputes is underscored by the fact that Taiwan (Republic of China) and China (People’s Republic of China) both claim legal sovereign rights over the Spratly archipelago composed of islets and reefs in the form of a U-shaped line and the East China Sea based on the same assertion that they are historically Chinese waters (“Taiwan’s Spratly Initiative in the South China Sea,” China Brief, February 29, 2008). The “non-denial” of the other sides’ claim has allowed the two sides’ to sidestep challenging the others’ separate administrative assertions over the contested islets. Furthermore, the hitherto independent and unchallenged actions by the two sides’ approaches to territorial disputes have kept Taiwan away from the spotlight in the regional dispute. At the same time, however, the tacit arrangement has diminished Taiwan’s claims over the islands and relevance to regional negotiations vis-à-vis the other claimants. Against the backdrop of increased Chinese assertiveness as well as Beijing strengthening its administrative jurisdiction and enforcements over territories in the South China Sea and East China Sea in recent years, the Taiwanese government appears to be moving away from its previous ambiguous arrangement (“China Pushes on the South China Sea, ASEAN Unity Collapses,” China Brief, August 3; “Taiwan Pivots in the South China Sea,” China Brief, June 17, 2011). Indeed, Taiwan seems increasingly pressured and concerned by China’s growing capability to enforce its claims over the disputed territories, which could have the indirect effect of subjugating the ROC’s claim over the islands under the PRC’s. This may be seen as part of a broader trend of the widening sovereignty gap in the Taiwan Strait in which China’s claims and ability to enforce its administrative claims over territories become more effective than Taiwan and by extension the PRC’s claim over Taiwan [2].

Cross-Strait Cooperation in the South China Sea?

Dialogues between Taiwan and China on the South China Sea have been taking place at the non-official track since 2002 (China Daily, July 11). The National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan is China’s focal point to discuss the South China Sea issue with its counterpart in Taiwan, the Institute of International Relations at National Cheng-chi University (“Taiwan’s Spratly Initiative in the South China Sea,” China Brief, February 29, 2008). The first published report co-authored by experts from Taiwan and mainland China on South China Sea in July 2011 offered an assessment of the regional situation in the South China Sea that indicated such cross-Strait cooperation be formalized. According to Dr. Anne Hsiao at Taiwan’s National Cheng-chi University:

“In the final chapter, entitled ‘Prospects of Cooperation in the South China Sea,’ calls for the creation of cross-Strait mechanisms to deal with South China Sea issues together. In particular, it suggests that a cross-Strait military coordination mechanism be established to defend their territorial claims together, and if necessary, the two sides should create positive conditions for joint patrol of the South China Sea. The report received mixed reactions within Taiwan as well as abroad, and Taiwan officials have reacted by dismissing the possibility of cooperation in this regards [emphasis added]. Nonetheless, the report still represented a serious effort by academics and policy thinkers across the Taiwan Strait in helping build cross-Strait confidence [3].”

Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, also stated at the most recent seminar held this past July in Hainan that two sides should set up a mechanism to facilitate joint search and rescue operations for fishermen who become lost at sea. Furthermore, Wu said rescue bases should be established on several islands, including Taiping Island, the Paracel Islands (xisha qundao) and the Pratas Islands (dongsha qundao) (China Daily, July 11). These reports have fueled concerns about possible changes in Taiwan’s position over territorial disputes in the South China Sea—and by extension the East China Sea.

Highlighting the sensitivity over and implications of cross-Strait joint protection in contested territories, a professor at the Graduate Institute of American Studies at Tamkang University, Dr. Chen I-Hsin, offered the following thoughts in a recent editorial:

“The joint protection of the islands will extend to the sovereignty dispute [emphasis added] over Taiping Island and other territories held by Taiwan in the South China Sea … The development is at odds with the intention of most Taiwanese people to maintain the status quo and uphold national security. From the angle of Beijing, the joint protection of the Diaoyu islands is a first step towards unification” (Want China Times, August 5).

A similar process does not appear to exist between Taiwan and China on the East China Sea. In early May during a hearing at the Legislative Yuan’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee on preserving Diaoyutai and South China Sea sovereignty, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense stated that the current government continues to adhere to the four principles formulated from the “1996 Diaoyutai project working group”: (1) resolutely assert [ROC] sovereignty over Diaoyutai; (2) to resolve the dispute peacefully and rationally; (3) no cooperation with mainland China; and (4) to prioritize the protection of fishermen’s rights [4]. At the same time, Taiwan and Japan have had close communication concerning developments in the East China Sea. Given the military strategic importance of the East China Sea for both Taiwan and Japan, Taiwan’s Deputy Defense Minister Andrew Yang said Taiwan and Japan have tacitly agreed to a “tentative enforcement line” within their overlapping exclusive economic waters near the Diaoyutai, located roughly 170 kilometers northeast of Taiwan proper. “[Taiwan] carries out patrols in the region according to this delineation of jurisdiction, as does Japan,” he said, “There are no problems with the enforcement of maritime law” (Taiwan Today, August 9).

Beijing’s government has called repeatedly for the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to coordinate their positions in regional territorial disputes. For instance, on June 15, 2011, Yang Yi, spokesman for the Chinese State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, stated people from both sides of the Taiwan Strait have a shared responsibility to safeguard sovereignty over the islands and their surrounding waters (Xinhua, June 15, 2011). Yet, when confronted by Taiwanese lawmakers during a question-and-answer session at the Legislative Yuan concerning the possibility of Taiwan-China collaboration in the region, National Security Bureau Director-General Tsai Te-sheng stated that it is “impossible” for Taiwan to cooperate with China on issues related to the disputed South China Sea region (China Post, May 22; Want China Times, May 21).


While the East China Sea Peace Initiative alone does not represent a radical shift in Taiwan’s policy in the Near Seas, when taken together with recent actions by the Taiwanese authorities in the South China Sea, Taipei’s actions demonstrate a subtle departure from the low-key approach to maritime disputes vis-à-vis China and the other claimants. In light of Beijing’s pell-mell push to strengthen the PRC’s administrative control and maritime enforcements over territories in the South China Sea and East China Sea, this shift by Taipei may reflect growing concerns in the Ma administration about its ability to preserve ROC sovereignty claims over the regions in the event of a conflict or mishap at sea that could endanger others’ right of passage and freedom of navigation.

Whether the Ma administration intends to draw a clear line of distinction between the ROC and PRC’s legal interpretation of their territorial claims remains to be seen. This is unlikely in the near future. Nevertheless, the implications of China’s increasing administrative and maritime control over the regions eventually will force Taipei to make a difficult choice. These incidents highlight an increasingly delicate balancing act that could lead to more friction between Taipei and Beijing over competing maritime claims in these regions in the coming years. With the East China Sea Peace Initiative, Ma appears to be trying to reassert Taiwan’s role diplomatically, reinforce Taiping Island, and show that Taiwan is willing and capable of being reasonable about territorial dispute resolution, which stands in stark contrast with Beijing’s approach to dealing with territorial disputes in the East China and South China seas. This shift will not likely go cost-free, but Taiwan’s rebalancing in the Near Seas could increase other claimants leverage in the dispute. These moves appear consistent with the Ma administration’s apparent effort to shore up the widening sovereignty gap in the Taiwan Strait while rebalancing its relationship with mainland China and the United States during his second term (“Taiwan Pivots in the South China Sea,” China Brief, June 17, 2011).


  1. Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ May 2, 2012 Project Report for the Legislative Yuan’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee Member concerning “On Appropriate Conduct for Preserving Diaoyutai and South China Sea Sovereignty,” p. 5.
  2. In 1956, Taiwan is the first of the claimant countries to establish a military presence and exercise effective jurisdiction over the Spratly Islands after World War II. For several decades, PRC scholars and experts expressed in private conversations their appreciation toward Taiwan for safeguarding the Taiping Island by maintaining a constant patrol of the South China Sea before Beijing first set its foot on the Spratlys. See for example, “Taiwan’s Spratly Initiative in the South China Sea,” China Brief, February 29, 2008.
  3. Anne Hsiu-an Hsiao, “Opportunity and Challenge for Cross-Strait Cooperation in the South China Sea,” Conference Paper for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, National Cheng-chi University and ROC Mainland Affairs Council on Cross-Strait Developments in 2012, July 12–13, 2012.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ May 2, 2012 Project Report for the Legislative Yuan, p. 5; Ministry of Defense Deputy Chief of General Staff Combat and Planning Office’s May 2, 2012 Project Report for the Legislative Yuan’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee Member concerning “On Appropriate Conduct for Preserving Diaoyutai and South China Sea Sovereignty,” pp. 3–5.