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U.S.-PRC South Sea flap and Taiwan's choices

U.S.-PRC South Sea flap and Taiwan's choices

Taiwan must clearly evaluate its strategic options in the new phase of contestation for regional influence between the U.S. and the People's Republic of China signalled by Washington's resolve to maintain freedom of the seas based on "international rules" in the South China Sea.
This newfound resolve was signalled July 22 by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a statement to a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Hanoi that resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea is a "leading diplomatic priority" for Washington.
Her statement clearly clashed with the intention of the PRC to turn the South China Sea, through which most regional shipping passes, into a virtual "Chinese lake."
Despite overlapping claims by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan (which holds Pratas (Tungsha) islets and Taiping Island in the Spratly chain), Beijing officials have declared the region to be PRC territory and a "core interest" that will be defended even with force.
In her statement, Clinton pointedly stressed that Washington "supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion" and opposes "the use or threat of force by any claimant."
Since the main possessor of overwhelming military force in the region is the PRC, it is clear whom the target of that remark was, especially given a recent series of arrests of Vietnamese fishing boats by People's Liberation Army Navy forces.
Clinton's remarks reflected a major shift in U.S. diplomatic policy in reaction to numerous moves by Beijing to insert wide swathes of territories and seas into the box of "indisputable core interests."
Washington itself must bear responsibility for this trend by acknowledging Beijing's vague demand for "respect" for its "sovereignty and territorial integrity" in the Nov. 17, 2009 U.S.-China Joint Statement signed last November when President Barack Obama and PRC State Chairman and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao met in Beijing.
The U.S. side may have intended this phrase to refer only to Tibet and Xinjiang, but Beijing has expanded its application first to the question of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and now to both the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea.
Evidently due at least in part to PRC objections, a major joint military exercise between the U.S. and South Korea that began yesterday, had been moved from the Yellow Sea west of South Korea to the Sea of Japan east of the Korean peninsula.
The exercise, which features both the USS George Washington carrier group and the first display of advanced F-22 Raptor jet fighters, had aimed to send a warning to North Korea in the wake of the sinking of South Korean corvette Cheonan in March.
However, both the joint exercise (including an invitation to Japanese observers) and Clinton's unexpectedly forceful intervention indicate that Obama administration objects to Beijing's blanket extension of its "core interests" and aims to both shore up Washington's security alliances with Japan and South Korea and reinvigorate its security dialogue and linkages with ASEAN.
The missing link
In this chain, the only missing link in the reconstituted U.S.-led security chain would appear to be Taiwan, but it should not be doubted that the Obama administration's intent to defend "international rules" in the seas surrounding the PRC includes the Taiwan Strait.
While Washington is supportive of closer cross-strait economic relations, Ma should not take it for granted that the U.S. would welcome any "leaning to one side"in Beijing's direction on security or political issues on the part of his rightist Kuomintang government.
In this murky waters, the Ma government will find it difficult to simply tread water by professing any intention to maintain a "balance" between Washington and Beijing.
At all costs, Ma must not give U.S., Japan and ASEAN that Taipei's position is identical or even parallel with that of the PRC, but simply reaffirming that the sovereignty of the "Republic of China" on Taiwan over various islets from the Tiaoyutai (Senkaku) chain in the East Sea to Taiping in the South Sea, as Interior Minister Jiang Yi-hua did yesterday, will prove insufficient.
If sustained, the newfound resolve by the Obama administration not to permit Beijing to turn the Yellow, East and South China Seas into "Chinese lakes" provides "an offer that cannot be refused" for the KMT administration to show that it has the capability to uphold Taiwan's national interests and the collective interests of the international community and will not automatically bow to Beijing on each and every issue.
Hopefully, the Ma administration can also manifest some creativity, such as displayed by former president Chen Shui-bian's February 2008 appeal for the South China Sea into an "ocean ecological protection zone."
In any case, the KMT government should carefully consider how it will respond when Taipei is inevitably pushed by Beijing to show "which side are you on."
We hope President Ma will not make the wrong choice.