South China Sea: A Chance for Taiwan-America Relations

I. Will the United States “say goodbye to Taiwan”?

According a recently popular article “Say goodbye to Taiwan”, written by the famous scholar of international relations, John J. Mearsheimer, the relation between Taiwan and the United States seems to be vulnerable enough to break in anytime since the former no longer represent security interests of Washington as it did in the Cold War era, and a close relation with Taiwan might undermine the Sino-American relation instead after their reconciliation in 1979. As China continues its’ economic growth and military force improvement in the past three decades, although not a sure thing, it is far more powerful than it was today. For the United States, it seems that supporting and giving Taiwan military assistance against the Communist China in necessary time cost too much.

I agree that for the United States, benefit from China is much larger than that from Taiwan no matter in economy or Asia-Pacific security. However, since the United States always considers the Eastern Asia Sea Lanes should be save and open due to the principle of free navigation, it would not happy to see Chinese efforts of making Taiwan a part of China and other behaviors of expanding power on other sea waters. In this case, the United States has little intention to give up Taiwan in a foreseeable future due to the South China Sea dispute.

II. Why should we focus on South China Sea issue while discussing the future relations between Taiwan and the United States?

First of all, changes of Sino-American relation always affect Taiwan-American relation. Given to that South China Sea issue tends to be the major competition arena between the United States and China in the future decades, the construction changes might happen in this area. In this case, the outcome of South China Sea conflicts affects Taiwan-American relation. To Taiwan, the limited relation with the United States has come from the need of arm force protection provided by the United States against China since the historical problem has rooted in between the CCP and the KMT governments in 1949. Because Taiwan’s safety is part of the strategic concern of “Deterrence” policy to the United States through the whole Cold War era, the KMT government has to follow the foreign policy of the United States to keep its’ national security interests, like the case in Japan. However, when Taiwan was becoming international isolated after losing its’ membership in the UN and diplomatic relationship with the United States in 1970s, Taiwan had no choice but to rely on the United States to support its’ safety through TRA (Taiwan Relations Act). Besides, since the United States has had a reconciliation with China in 1979 and hold “one China policy” after that, Taiwan-American relation is totally constrained by the Sino-American relation.

Due to this condition, Taiwan has to find a new way to improve its’ own interests under the construction of Sino-American relation in a very small scale, and the ways through politics and economy are not reliable: under the “one China policy”, Washington shows little positive attitude toward Taipei at political field; on the other hand, China provides much more economic benefits to the United States than most of the countries do in the world, and Taiwan lacks of advantages to compete with China for the attention from Washington. Moreover, in the recent decades, when the rise of China is recognized globally, Taiwan tends to become unprecedented isolated for its’ decreasing strategic position.

However, while observers found that the United States is decreasing in these decades, it seems that the rising China has enlarged the action range of Taiwan under Sino-American relation: China is translating the unipolar system dominated by the United States into a bipolar system. As a result, the president Barack Obama held the “Rebalancing” policy for the purpose of rebuilding balance of power in Asia-Pacific area. On South China Sea issue, the conflicts between China and other Asia countries like Philippine and Vietnam provides Washington a chance to strengthen the “Rebalancing” policy against China. To Washington, contemporary China does not possess significant military power that enables itself to pick a fight with the American military nowadays. And to keep China being constrained by the present global balance of power is clearly stacked in America’s favor. In this case, Taiwan and the America hold collective interest. The situation gives Taiwan potential advantages of strategic position on the national security issue, which is a key to improve the relation with the United States--Taiwan holds advantages for its’ unchallengeable authority of Taiping island in South China Sea.

III. What is South China Sea dispute?

From the angle of geopolitics, the South China Sea dispute happens in a conflict area under the two big powers (which are the United States and China) construction. The South China Sea is a marginal sea that is part of the Pacific Ocean, encompassing an area from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan of around 3,500,000 square kilometres. The area's importance largely results from one-third of the world's shipping transiting through its waters, and that it is believed to hold huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed. The surroundings include Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippine, Malaya peninsula, Bangka–Belitung Islands, and Borneo.

Chinese government has started to reclaim land on Fiery Cross Reef, Woody Island, and the Paracel Islands, for the purpose of building 3 km airstrips on those islands in the South China Sea in the past five years. Those reclamation activities seem to be a Chinese “Monroe Policy” that could significantly boost Beijing’s position in the South China Sea with implications for other claimants and interested parties. The reclaiming land activity is part of a broader strategy of “incremental assertiveness” to change the facts on the water in Beijing’s favor where possible to advance its claims. Beijing’s efforts to increase the size of individual features could help strengthen the legal justification for its extensive territorial claims. China could have controlled the whole waters and air space in South China Sea if it continuing the reclaiming process without international objection, which is a severe threat to all the Asian countries which rely on Malacca Strait for transportation and also the status of the United States after 1945.

ASEAN countries expressed their high concentration to the South China Sea issue, and Japan also criticized Chines government’s behavior. Washington suggested that the South China Sea issue should be solved peacefully; on the other hand, it holds joint military exercise with Philippine and Indonesia eyes regular navy. Besides, the United States has partially lifted its embargo on weapon sales to Vietnam’s navy, who received patrol boats also donated by Japan, and acquired six kilo-class submarines from Russia. The Philippines has reopened its Subic Bay base to U.S. Navy vessels, and Manila is seeking redress in a UNCLOS arbitration case against China.

However, China’s land grab for these reefs and atolls meets with little to no resistance because of the dialogue regarding a possible strategic partnership between Vietnam and the Philippines. This situation considerably is a bad news for the United States. In this case, Taiwan can play an important role in the South China Sea Dispute and strengthen its’ tie with the United States on security issue since that Taiwan is nearly the last one who might betray the interest of Washington in Asia. Taiwan needs the support from Washington far more than Washington needs Taiwan.

IV. Why Taiwan can play important role in the South China Sea issue?

Taiping Island(Itu Aba), administered by the Republic of China (Taiwan) as part of Cijin, Kaohsiung, is the largest of the naturally occurring Spratly Islands(Nansha Islands) in the South China Sea. The island is elliptical in shape being 1.4 kilometres, in length and 0.4 kilometres in width, with an area of 46 hectares). The island features a 1,150-meter runway, which was completed in 2008. Taiping can be instrumental for projecting power and securing sea lanes. As a bonus, Taiping has abundant fisheries and is the only island in the Spratlys to feature an indigenous supply of fresh water. In this reason, both Washington and Beijing consider Taiping Island vital strategic position. Beijing even intensifies its propaganda campaign to encourage the perception that Taiwan and China are cooperating in the defense of “shared” territory and interests in the region. Because of Beijing’s action, Taipei must therefore embark on a new path by proposing concrete measures to clarify its position and unchallengeable sovereignty of Taiping Island. Retaining Taiping provides quantifiable military value to the defense of Taiwan proper and its outlying islands. In this case, Taipei and Washington share the collective interest in the South China Sea dispute without a doubt, so to strengthen the tie between Taiwan and the United States fits the favor of both sides.

I suggest that the dispute will last for decades due to the behavior of China recently. For example, the establishment of AIIB(Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) shows a strong connection with the “One Belt and One Road” policy, and the scale of “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” contains South China Sea area. If China tended to make progress on the policy and AIIB, the South China Sea dispute has to be solved with peace and fair. Under the condition, a stable and solid tie between Taipei and Washington supports Taiwan more flexibility while facing the pressure from Beijing.

We can find that Taiwan has started its preparation due to the improvements of Taiping Island’s capabilities, including repairing runway to accommodate transport and marine patrol aircraft and to construct a port to allow naval frigates and coastguard cutters to be stationed there permanently. In present, the island have airstrip and is long enough to accommodate Hercules C-130 transport aircraft.In the future, Taiwan government plans to build a wharf that could accommodate large-displacement vessels from the Coast Guard Administration (CGA) and, presumably, the ROC Navy. The islet also features a 7-meter-high tactical air navigation (TACAN) facility to facilitate instrument landing, and its defenses (under the CGA since 2000) have been bolstered with AAA guns and mortar units, moves that have sparked concern in Hanoi. In addition, the United States also implicitly support Taiwan’s military force to enhance Taiping Island’s capabilities. Taiwan currently has received eight of a total of 12 refurbished P-3C Orion aircraft from the United States as part of a sale approved in 2007 following years of political infighting in Taipei. The remaining four are expected to be delivered by the end of 2015. After that, Taiwan dispatched P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft on surveillance missions in its claimed territory within the disputed South China Sea. While the aircraft are now engaged in anti-submarine reconnaissance and joint surveillance in Taiwan’s surrounding waters and air defense identification zone (ADIZ), Taiwan military will gradually expand their deployment to areas outside the ADIZ including in the South China Sea.

V. The possibility of military cooperation between Taiwan and the United States.

According to those behaviors of Taiping Island from Taiwan administration recently, we found that the re-militarization of the island is happening under the tacitly consent from the United States. As long as the United States still wants to improve “Rebalancing” policy to keep the status in Asia, Taiwan can get huge advantages than other countries like Vietnam and Philippine to compete the interests in South China Sea against China in this game.

Besides, since the re-militarization of Taiping island cause potential risks to Taiwan from other claimants in the South China Sea, the United States might call for neutralizing Taiping Island, and hand it over to a multilateral body. If Taiwan wants to hold a stable sovereignty of the island, East China Sea Peace Initiative might become an example for Taiwan and to raise a “South China Sea Peace Initiative”, which can stack the favor of both Taiwan and the United States.

By Ke-Hsin, Li

National Chenchi University

Republic of China (Taiwan)

Views: 331

Tags: #TPC2015


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Comment by Untung Waluyo on June 28, 2015 at 1:55am

good readning :) waluhyo

Comment by Kehsin, Li on May 3, 2015 at 11:56am

Thank you for your comment! That will be a big pleasure for me if the essay can provide you something new about the South China Sea dispute and Taiwan-American relations since I had been a little nervous wondering that whether my essay contains too much about arm force to raise people' s interests! Again, thank you for taking time reading this article!

Comment by Regina Parker on May 1, 2015 at 10:47pm

Thank you for providing such interesting detail about Taiwan's military engagement in the South China Sea. I learned a lot from reading this essay!

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