Strategy, the South China Sea, and the meeting of the Misters

There is one thing that Beijing and Taipei agree on – the South China Sea

Rosita Dellios

International relations, National security | East Asia, Southeast Asia

20 November 2015

With Taiwan’s elections around the corner and China under increasing international pressure over the South China Sea, the timing of the Xi-Ma meeting was no coincidence, writes Rosita Dellios.

With all eyes on the South China Sea it is easy to forget Taiwan. But with the meeting of the two ‘Misters’ in Singapore recently – Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou – it is possible to connect the nine-dash line to Taiwan.  When Xi met Ma on neutral ground, in Singapore, they both agreed to avoid the contentious use of titles and simply call each other ‘Mister’ in front of their names.

That November meeting was symbolic in that no negotiations took place on reunification between the two estranged Chinas – the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province. It was historic because the reality behind the façade of mister-diplomacy was that this was an unprecedented meeting between the top leaders of PRC and ROC, a meeting that had not taken place since the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War 66 years ago.

This was when the Communists under Mao Zedong had won and the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government under Chiang Kai-shek lost. Chiang set up the ROC in Taiwan with the intention of retaking the mainland another day. That day never came, but Taiwan remained the ROC’s base.

When the China seat at the United Nations went to the PRC in 1971, the ROC was left to survive in the backwaters of international relations. Beijing would not permit recognition of ‘two Chinas’ as it demanded the existence of only ‘one China’ – the PRC – and said Taiwan was part of that. Taipei did not agree to formal reunification and maintained a de facto independence.

Logically, reunification could not occur unless it was under the ROC, which was established in 1912. The PRC, by comparison, was founded in 1949. Under the PRC, any political union would be considered from the ROC perspective as unification. However, as time goes by, and democratic Taiwan sits comfortably in its Taiwanese rather than Chinese identity, the prospects of reunification continue to recede. So does the dream of de jure (legal) independence, irrespective of which party is in power. The status quo appears to be the best place to be for most Taiwanese, as measured by opinion polls.

So why was the Singapore meeting worth noting at all? Timeliness is the key. There is a Chinese term for this: shi, which means the strategic configuration of power. It denotes latent energy as well as strategic advantage or a favourable disposition of circumstances. What is the shi of the Xi-Ma meeting?

It comes at a time, just prior the Taiwanese elections, when the ruling KMT, which is Beijing’s preferred party, could lose the elections, and at a time when China is experiencing US pressure over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea – which Taiwan as the Republic of China also claims.

On July 7, President Ma reasserted ROC’s territorial claim to Taiping Island – on which it is building a US$108 million wharf in addition to existing infrastructure – and other islands in the Spratlys. After all, it was the ROC which originally issued the now controversial map of a U-shaped claim to the South China Sea.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has clearly stated:  “whether from the perspectives of history, geography, or international law, the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Macclesfield Bank, and Pratas Islands, as well as their surrounding waters, are an inherent part of RoC territory and waters”.

So Beijing and Taipei are in agreement about the South China Sea. When it came to their historic meeting, the island-state of Singapore was well placed to host it. It represents a neutral third party that has hosted talks between the two sides before; it shares in Chinese cultural values; it sits on the strategic gateway to the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait; and it is well practised at hosting high-level meetings – the Shangri-La hotel where Xi and Ma met also hosts the annual Asian security summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue.

The timeliness of the meeting needs to be seen within the wider framework of Xi Jinping’s new Maritime Silk Road (within the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative) that sees the region as sharing a “common destiny” in economic and other forms of development. By engaging in what amounts to “mutual non-subordination” – that is, neither side is treating the other party as subordinate – Xi and Ma have judged the time to be right to open the conduits of regional cooperation. What better start than the two traditional adversaries across the Taiwan Strait.

In this a favourable disposition of circumstances (shi) presents itself. The meeting between Xi and Ma has set a precedent for the Taiwanese opposition should it come to power, as it’s likely to, to continue a dialogue with China after the elections. But this is premised on the fact that Beijing has something to give.

Beijing may leave the door open for modifying the ‘one country, two systems’ formula of reunification – which was applied to Hong Kong but originally intended for Taiwan – to give Taiwan greater political recognition and international space to conduct its diplomacy, such as joining more international organisations.

When seen in the context of strengthening claims to the South China Sea, Taiwan is latently a strategic heavyweight and no mere international backwater. In accordance with the nature of shi, China benefits from accommodating Taiwan. Both support Chinese claims and reject international intervention in what they see as their southern ocean.

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One Response

  1. Nathan R Jugoz says:

    Stop calling it the south china sea. As a retired Navy veteran, I have sailed there many times enroute to other distant lands and it bears no specific name on the nautical map because it is a place of international sea lanes and airspace and therefore, no country has the right to claim, invade and destroy the eco system. Man can be the very one to kill this earth. Leave the west philippine sea as God intended it be. Perhaps it is already too late.

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