Not dissimilar to the situation in South China Sea, dispute over East China Sea involves sovereignty claims, potential access to hydrocarbon resources and fishing rights. The primary area of contention in East China Sea are Senkaku (尖閣諸島)/Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台群島) (*), other involve disputes over Exclusive Economic Zone delimitation between Japan and China. Sovereignty over Senkaku/Diaoyutai is contested by Taiwan (Republic of China, ROC), China (People’s Republic of China, PRC), and Japan. China and Taiwan claim that islands have been traditional area for Chinese fishermen and China has been sovereign over the islands since 13th century until 1895 when Japan took control over Taiwan under Treaty of Shimonoseki. However, Japan claims that in 1895 Senkaku/Diaoyutai were discovered by Japan uninhabited and as terra nullius were incorporated under Japanese jurisdiction prior Shimonoseki treaty. Thus, Senkaku islands were not subject to post-WWII reversal of the results of the first Sino-Japanese war. (1) Islands were under US control between 1945 and 1972 when US under Okinawa Reversion Treaty returned islands under Japanese control by transferring “administrative rights”. By doing so, US attempted to stay neutral on sovereignty issue. (2) This allows US to declare that it takes “no position on the ultimate sovereignty” over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai, statement that Beijing may take with grain of salt given that islands are apparently covered by US-Japan defense treaty. However, rather than legal nature of the claim and conflicting historical narratives, we will explore here the likelihood of all parties finding either peaceful resolution or (at least) sustainable conflict management.
The latest attempt to propose resolution of the dispute is Taiwan President’s East China Sea Peace Initiative that was announced on August 5 and details of which were released on September 6 during Ma Ying-jeou’s visit to Taiwan-controlled Pengjia islet in the East China Sea. Peace initiative is a reaction on series of incidents, most notably September 7, 2010 collision between Japan Coast Guard (JCG) patrol boat and Chinese fishing boat which resulted in diplomatic crisis between Japan and China. More recently, serious of incidents have further increased tensions that last to this day. First, on July 4 Taiwan’s fishing vessel with three activists from World Chinese Alliance in Defense of the Diaoyu Islands (世界華人保釣聯盟) approached Diaoyutai with the Taiwan Coast Guard (TCG) escort. Fishing vessel got to close proximity of the Uotsuri island while attempt of JCG officers to board fishing boat was thwarted by TCG vessels. The whole event turned out to be rather awkward for Taiwan authorities after the activists on board of the fishing boat raised PRC flag only. The emotions have flared up again in mid-August when activists departed from Hong-Kong on July 15 and managed to set foot on Uotsuri with PRC and ROC flags. Subsequently, 14 people were arrested by JCG and eventually expelled by Japan two days later. Finally, Japanese activists responded on July 19 when group of 20 ships with 150 people on board reached Senkakus, 10 of them landed on Uotsuri and raised Japanese flags. In a consequence, anti-Japan protests (at some occasions violent) erupted all over China.
Further escalating factor has been the intention of Tokyo’s mayor to buy three islands out of five in Senkaku Islands group from private Japanese owner announced in April. This actually prompted flag raising action on July 4, 2012. During July and August, central government in Japan have stepped in the deal between Tokyo metropolitan government and islands owner and announced the intention to purchase the islands, deal that was apparently concluded few days ago.
Ma’s proposal comes at time of heightened tensions between Japan and China, and to a certain extent also between Taiwan and Japan. Peace initiative lays out two stages of implementation: (1) peaceful dialogue and mutually reciprocal negotiation; (2) sharing resources and cooperative development. It also defines area of cooperation: (a) fishing industry; (b) mining industry; (c) marine science research and maritime environmental protection; (d) maritime security and unconventional security; and (e) East China Sea Code of Conduct. Final paragraph of Ma’s initiative declares intention to reach multilateral negotiations through bilateral dialogues:
“Over the long run, we can move from three parallel tracks of bilateral dialogue (between Taiwan and Japan, Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, and Japan and the mainland) to one track of trilateral negotiations and realize peace and cooperation in the East China Sea.”
If implemented, East China Sea Peace Initiative would set Taiwan as an equal partner of China and Japan in joint management of East China Sea resources and eventually as a partner in trilateral Code of Conduct. Let’s have a closer look at the process of moving from bilateral negotiations to multilateral settlement.
- From bilateral to multilateral negotiations
First challenge is clear from the beginning. Taiwan will find it difficult to draw attention to the initiative as China considers Taiwan to be renegade province and Japan does not maintain official relations with Taiwan. This obstacle can be managed on bilateral level, however, on a multilateral level, Taiwan will face stiff resistance from China. From Beijing’s perspective, there is a significant lack of incentive to give Taiwan status of an independent (or autonomous) party in a multilateral arrangement. Taiwan already upholds claim for Diaoyutai as part of ROC, thus, by extension it also upholds PRC’s sovereignty, at least from Beijing’s perspective.
Japan might be interested in bettering relations with Taiwan but that won’t come at price of advocating separate chair for Taiwan at the negotiation table. Moreover, even if Tokyo pushes for Taipei’s participation such effort stands little chance to convince Beijing. Furthermore, Japan has little incentive to invest its political capital in bringing Taiwan in. From their perspective the major problem is China’s position. Taipei’s stance would be irrelevant, provided that Tokyo finds settlement with Beijing,
Last but not least, Beijing is fundamentally opposed to negotiate its territorial claims under multilateral framework and it would be doing so in case of East China Sea claims unless it will be sure that Taipei will act as its agent, condition that Beijing can hardly hope for considering the high stakes Taiwan has in keeping good relations with Japan (and US). Moreover, that all means to set aside the unpleasant dilemma Beijing would have to face when dealing at the same time with sovereignty claims over Taiwan and Senkaku/Diaoyutai. Lessons learned from South China Sea is that multilateral settlement is unlikely to happen when one of the major stakeholders is in a strong opposition of such arrangement.
Taiwan has also little to offer, it is not in physical possession of some of the islands (like in South China Sea) and it does not have deep sea drilling capabilities. Therefore, as long as joint development is concerned Taiwan will be in significantly weaker position. It may offer financial resources but it is not cleat what leverage would Taiwan gain by that vis-à-vis China and Japan.
There are serious reasons to be rather sceptical about multilaterally negotiated settlement of Senkaku/Diaoyutai dispute, however, advances on bilateral level may create a situation of de facto multilateral framework. Thus, Code of Conduct in East China Sea may be achieved in spirit by creating an environment where formal agreement won’t be necessary. What are the perspectives in this area?
- Taiwan-Japan level
On Taiwan’s side, relations with Japan are facilitated by the absence of strong anti-Japanese resentment that we can witness on China’s (and Korea’s) side. Moreover, Japan is Taiwan’s largest importer and very important economic partner in overall terms. Thus, it should not be expected that current exchange of strong statements will last for too long. However, that does not mean that negotiations between Japan and Taiwan will be easy. Fishing right talks have been stalled since early 2009 as both sides stick to their respective positions without further progress. Considering that Taiwan lacks physical occupation in Diaoyutais and deep sea drilling technologies, reaching an agreement on fishing with Japan should be the main prize for Taiwan.
- Taiwan-China level
Both sides agree on the issue that Japanese possession of Senkaku Islands is illegal. Naturally, they somehow differ on who has the sovereignty over the territory which is of course part of the complex web of Cross-Strait relations. It is not unimaginable that current Taiwanese administration may reach some consensus on all the issue in the Peace Initiative on strictly bilateral basis. However, it is questionable what would be the benefit of such deal unless it would be part of larger agenda of Taiwan-China relations. Even if that is truth, China cannot deliver to Taiwan anything without reaching an agreement with Japan in a first place. If Beijing has an agreement with Tokyo, it may or may not share the benefits with Taiwan. Furthermore, reaching an agreement with China would mean divorce from declared Taiwan’s policy of non-engagement with China on Diaoyutai issue. Last but not least, Taiwan has little interest to appear as compromising relations with Japan and US.
- China-Japan level
This track is actually one that can deliver some comprehensive results, i.e. including arrangement on fishing rights and joint exploration of hydrocarbon resources. But any bilateral agreement between the two threatens to sideline Taiwan. Beijing would have little interest to share prize with Taiwan that has nothing else to deliver unless the intention would be to reward Taiwan for “good behavior” in other areas. In this case Taiwan’s costs may be higher than benefits and it could hardly be attributed to Ma’s peace initiative. Moreover, one should not have high hopes regarding Japan-China relations. First, Japan controls the islands and have US defense cover behind their back although Washington does not take position on the issue of sovereignty. Second, Japan has reached agreements with China in the past (most importantly China-Japan principled consensus on East China Sea issue from 2008) and it does not appear to mitigate mutual distrust. Incidents from 2010 and 2012 show how fragile such arrangements are. That is of course useful lesson for East China Sea Peace Initiative.
Prospects of multilateral solution seem to be unrealistic, prospects of bilateral solutions creating quasi-multilateral framework without more formal structure face too many challenges and benefits for Taiwan are rather unclear. Is Taiwan being naive on Diayutai dispute? Although it may appear so, it would not be entirely correct to give Taiwan such label. East China Sea Peace Initiative should not be considered only in terms of its feasibility. Ma may want to strengthen Taipei’s position but he must be also aware about limitations of his initiative. What if we look at initiative as a policy tool rather than roadmap to peaceful settlement? In the end of the day, the goal of the initiative might be much more modest. It may simply be signaling to Japan that Taiwan has different approach from China and that it is not willing to compromise mutual relations over this issue on the one hand, and reassuring Beijing that it upholds its claim but not so much more than that on the other hand. So far, reaction from Japan has been rather modest and reaction from Beijing non-existent. However, rumours have surfaced that stalled fishing rights negotiations may be renewed soon. (3) On a pragmatic level, that is all Taiwan might want to get.
(1) Emmers, R. (2010). Geopolitics and Maritime Territorial Disputes in East Asia. Abingdon: Routledge, p. 49
(2) ibidem, p. 50
(3) So far, this information appeared on Kyodo News. Unfortunatelly, content is behind paywall. Information will be updated as soon as it appears in public domain.
*Both terms are considered equal in this text and use of one language version separately (either Diaoyutai or Senkaku) is there for reader’s convenience