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Taiwan Suggests Code of Conduct for East China Sea

  • Ralph Jennings

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou cheers with the audience during National Day celebrations in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, Oct. 10, 2013.

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou cheers with the audience during National Day celebrations in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, Oct. 10, 2013.

China and Japan have tested each other’s patience for 18 months with claims to the same patch of ocean. Now Taiwan, a third but smaller claimant to the same area, is suggesting a code of conduct to avoid missteps or accidents. Taiwan normally gets little attention for diplomacy because of opposition from China but hopes to change that with this proposal.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has suggested that Tokyo, Beijing and his own government negotiate a code of conduct outlining measures to avoid deadly mishaps during tests of military strength over control of the East China Sea. His idea is similar to a code discussed in Southeast Asia since 2012 to smooth competing claims in the South China Sea.

Because Taiwan lacks the diplomatic clout to negotiate cross-border deals, China and Japan are not expected to react publicly. But both sides and the United States are expected to welcome the idea informally as an alternative to conflict. Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan, said Taiwan wanted to prove its leadership ability despite its marginal status.

“If in the future there will be a multilateral dialogue and Taiwan’s voice should not be ignored, President Ma wanted to climb to the high ground before others,” he said.

Ma suggested the code of conduct to cover the air space and waters of the East China Sea at a Taipei conference Wednesday. He also called for establishing a way for rival governments to work out air defense identification zone disputes. China delineated an air defense zone over the disputed area in November, alarming Japan and Taiwan as it overlaps their sea claims.

For 18 months Beijing and Tokyo have tested each other’s commitment to their claims to 40,000 square kilometers of ocean with ship movements and flyovers. Both are eyeing undersea natural gas deposits in the same tract east of Shanghai. Taiwanese fishing boats trawl around eight Japanese-controlled islands in the disputed area and occasionally clash with Tokyo’s coast guard. Two years ago President Ma proposed that the three claimants share resources in the East China Sea.

Scholars from Japan and the United States have welcomed the code of conduct proposal because it would reduce the risk of conflict without compromising any side’s sovereignty claims. The U.S. government wants peace in East Asia so it can maintain economic engagement with China as well as military relations with Japan and Taiwan, a sore point in Beijing.

Alexander Huang said the United States has been waiting for someone to take the lead in defusing the regional tensions.

“Friends in Washington would welcome this kind of statement and gesture and Taiwan’s effort to raise this issue. It would be very hard to go beyond the president’s statement and say hey we’ve got better solutions or proposals,” he said.

Taiwan hopes its proposal will enhance its status with the U.S. and help win a seat for Taipei in the Trans Pacific Partnership trading bloc.

China sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and uses its economic clout to bar other governments from negotiating with Taipei, hampering trade deals and muting efforts at regional diplomacy. But China has sought to ease tension with Taiwan since 2008 and may seek private code of conduct talks with Ma’s government to cut out Beijing’s chief rival Japan.

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