Taiwan circling South China Sea bait

For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com

TAIPEI – With mainland China and Taiwan clinging to all but identical territorial claims, Beijing has offered Taipei a chance to jointly explore resource-rich waters in the South China Sea at the expense of other claimants.

While economically the bait seems too good to resist for Taiwan, an island barren not only of natural gas and oil fields but also diplomatic clout, its government under President Ma Ying-jeou will be wary of touching this political hot potato. BR>
The term “energy security” describes a concept that is outright exotic to the Taiwanese. While the United States manages to produce 70% of its own primary energy supply, and China over 80%, only 0.6% of the petroleum, natural gas and coal Taiwan uses is actually pumped or dug up on the island or in its surrounding waters.

Fuels that keep the Taiwanese economy alive are shipped from

the Persian Gulf, western Africa or mainland China, and if for whatever reasons those supplies were to be choked off or become enormously expensive, economic activity on the island would quickly collapse. Also, the development of nuclear power is a tricky option as Taiwan is very earthquake-prone, and renewable energy, electric vehicles and green buildings do not promise to become a panacea any time soon.

Beijing is now presenting a way out of the precarious situation. It has invited the Taiwanese to have a big share of the energy cake believed to be at the doorsteps of both sides.

“That mainland China and Taiwan begin jointly exploiting the South China Sea is a good idea,” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokeswoman Fan Liqing recently told reporters in Hong Kong. “China holds indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and other near waters, and both sides of the Taiwan Strait have the shared responsibility to protect it.”

Taiwan claims about 3.5 million square kilometers of the South China Sea just as the the mainland does. According to mainland estimates, underneath that body of water, claimed wholly or in part by mainland China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, lie oil and natural gas reserves good for more than 60 years of current mainland demand.

But while Beijing has the economic might, diplomatic clout and military power to make its voice heard in the sovereignty disputes with South East Asia nations, Taipei has neither.

Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island, or Itu Aba, which is the largest of the potentially oil-rich Nansha Islands group, or Spratlys, is too far from Taiwan for Taipei to have a realistic chance of protecting it against aggression. Even more of a problem is Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation.

Taiwan’s claims are based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but Taiwan isn’t a party to UNCLOS, or indeed any other UN body or agreement.

As no one in the region recognizes Taiwan’s statehood, Taipei’s claims are all too easily laughed off by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Vietnam and the Philippines, the principle antagonists of mainland China and Taiwan in the South China Sea dispute, are members. In more concrete diplomatic terms, Taiwan is excluded from participation in an ASEAN-initiated multilateral mechanism to resolve disputes and also from other bilateral ones.

That Beijing seeks to tie Taiwan ever tighter is no secret. To meet its objective of cross-strait unification, its strong position in the South China Sea dispute comes is a handy tool in combination with Taiwan’s precarious energy situation.

Since as early as in 1994, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and Taiwan’s state-owned oil refiner CPC Corporation have been collaborating, and in the beginning of the last decade, they conducted joint surveys in the Tai-Chao basin, which is west of the Taiwan Strait’s mid-line – the mainland side.

In 2005, CNOOC proposed a similar undertaking but this time in the east of the Taiwan Strait’s mid-line – which is the side under Taiwanese control – but that was rejected by pro-independence Chen Shui-bian, who in those days had the say in Taipei. When Ma Ying-jeou, of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), became president in 2008, he lifted Chen’s ban a month after his inauguration, allowing joint research to be done east of the Taiwan Strait’s median line – in Taiwanese waters.

According to contested claims by Taiwanese academia, there is a rare bi-partisan consensus between Taiwan’s ruling KMT and the opposition anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that CNOOC and CPC develop oil and gas ventures in the northern waters of the South China Sea near the Taiwan-controlled Dongsha Islands, or Pratas, where there are no claimants other than China and Taiwan.

It has also been suggested that with the help of CNOOC’s first deep-water drilling rig, which started operation in early May, CNOOC and CPC could after a warm up phase in the north shift exploration further south, where Vietnam and the Philippines have claims as well as mainland China and Taiwan.

The Vietnamese have become increasingly brazen in those waters, claim lawmakers in Taipei. They counted 42 Vietnamese intrusions within six kilometers of Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island in 2010, 106 last year and 41 in the first four months of this year. The Vietnamese even opened fire earlier this year at the Taiwanese coast guard stationed on the island, according to Taiwanese pro-Beijing media, a claim Hanoi denies.

As yet another recent indicator that Taiwan is beginning to view South East Asian nations, particularly Vietnam, as the imaginary enemy rather than mainland China, retired Admiral Fei Hung-po, Taiwan’s former deputy chief of general staff, remarked in early June that unlike the Taiwanese Navy, the mainland’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be capable of guaranteeing Taiping’s protection.

From the day Taipei appreciates that the PLA Navy’s destroyers, amphibious landing ships and helicopter-carriers can provide a protective hand for Dongsha and Taiping, the argument for solid cross-strait military cooperation is given overwhelming power, according to one school of thought.

Tsai Der-sheng, the head of Taiwan’s principle intelligence agency claims Hanoi and Manila are already concerned about such an outcome. The two governments have lately been trying to persuade Taipei not to side with Beijing in the South China Sea. There are also signs that Washington is worried. US officials at the just concluded annual Shangri-La Dialogue, an unofficial security forum in Singapore bringing together defense ministers and military chiefs of Asia-Pacific powers, in private expressed a “high degree of concern,” according to a report by the Taipei Times.

Taipei is likely to be cautious before accepting the mainland offer. Huang Kwei-Bo, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, was “very confident” that the Ma administration “will carry on exerting a great deal of caution and self-restraint to deal with this issue.” So far, Taiwan’s attitude toward the South China Sea territorial dispute has so far been very reasonable, he said.

Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, said that if Beijing should seek cooperation from the Ma administration “it would be extremely awkward for Ma; it would be political dynamite in Taiwan. If I were in Ma’s administration, I would do all I could to persuade Beijing not to push for such a matter.”

Tsang questioned the rationale of the supposed CNOOC-CPC proposal to start cooperation first in waters solely claimed by Beijing and Taipei then move elsewhere at the expense of ASEAN nations.

“Unless one of the states will give a state-issued insurance, it is hard to see any oil major agreeing to be a party to prospecting where a serious sovereignty dispute and the risk of the use of force exist,” Tsang said. The supposed strategy is something nationalist elements in the mainland could spend their days chatting about rather than it being actual government policy in Beijing, he said.

As for Washington, “the USA will have an interest to pre-empt major developments over disputes of the islets unless they head in a direction of multilateral international joint efforts that will replace the sovereignty dispute by multinational cooperations,” Tsang said.

“For this reason, I cannot see Washington welcoming the prospect of a joint PRC-ROC [mainland-Taiwan] exploration that does not involve the other claimants. I would be surprised if Washington would not make its views understood by Taipei, should there be any risk of its position not being crystal clear.”

Huang at the Brookings Institution believes that the mainland offer could be seen by the Taiwanese as signifying a potential dead end to Taipei’s diplomatic ambitions in the region.

“Taiwan’s incentive for such cooperation can be diminished to a great extent if Beijing is eagerly promoting it on the one hand, but on the other is very reluctant to include Taiwan in major regional mechanisms aimed at managing the South China Sea issue,” Huang said.

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist. 

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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