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Taiwan cools tempers over disputed islands

Tensions are again rising in East China Sea.

China and Japan are at odds over a chain of tiny islands (known as ‘Senkaku’ by the Japanese and ‘Diaoyutai’ by the Chinese), and the potentially valuable oil and gas nearby.

This dispute threatens regional stability and affects all countries that depend on maritime trade and air routes in Northeast Asia. The US security commitments to Japan and South Korea have drawn Washington into the dispute, raising the geo-political stakes.

The Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan also has claims to these islands but within the region it has taken the lead in working to de-escalate the confrontation.

Sound advice

Taiwan is in a good position to offer concrete advice, having not only improved economic relations within China through 21 separate agreements in the past four years, but is also finalising a fishing agreement with Japan to share resources in the disputed waters near the disputed islands last year, putting an end to a four-year dispute.

Taiwan also negotiated a peaceful settlement with Manila after a Philippine Coast Guard vessel killed a Taiwan fisherman.

In 2012, ROC President Ma Ying-Jeou put forward his ‘East China Sea Peace Initiative’ and followed it with an international conference of experts in August 2013.

Three Principles

In February 2014, he hosted an international symposium of 200 academics, analysts and officials from ten countries to discuss a possible settlement. He proposed three principles to diffuse the current tensions.

Frist, all parties should respect individual law of maritime and air commerce, including safety regulations.

Second, the contending parties should engage in direct negotiations to adopt temporary safeguards against miscommunication and subsequent escalations and establish processes to deal with accidents

Finally, the parties should agree on a code of conduct and establish a regional mechanism for long-term negotiations and cooperation.

Another effort

Last week, President Ma reaffirmed Taiwan’s potential as a regional peacemaker and called for another international meeting in April to discuss how to manage the dispute, including the exploration of joint development of resources.

Taiwan’s brand of diplomacy stands in stark contrast to the provocative movements of military hardware by the regional powers.

China’s declaration of an extended Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) has strained the delicate consensus that profitable commerce and economic growth are compatible with China’s ‘peaceful rise.’

National sentiments

Beijing’s ADIZ declaration, overlapping with the Zones of Japan and South Korea, has proved Western diplomatic protests and moved by Tokyo to strengthen its Navy and Air force.

Japan’s rising tempo of surveillance sorties has provoked a corresponding rise in China’s quasi-military deployments. Directly or indirectly, both Governments are appealing to nationalistic sentiments that can too easily lead to unwanted escalation.

Taiwan’s voice amongst the major powers of the Asia Pacific may often be overlooked due to its uncertain and still undefined international position. But it is a constructive and credible one, weighing on the side of compromise and moderation.

Dr Stephen Hoadley and Dr Stephen Noakes are respectively Associate Professor and Lecturer of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland.

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