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Joel Brinkley: Dispute over sea rights won't be settled amicably


By Joel Brinkley

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The South China Sea controversy continues to roil the waters. China claims to own almost every square inch, including every island and natural feature in this vast sea -- despite angry protestations from its neighbors.

Well, a similar debate simmers just north, in the East China Sea, which borders Taiwan, China and Japan. There, a group of small islands known as the Diaoyu if you're Chinese, or Senkakus if you're Japanese, are also objects of covetous contestation.

Various passive explorations suggest that the area is a rich source of untapped oil, natural gas and coal. So, not surprisingly, China, Taiwan and Japan are locked in bitter, intractable arguments over ownership.

China argues that it owns the entire area, just as it does the South China Sea, and will brook no argument. Japan counters that any efforts to negotiate are pointless because its ownership is irrefutable; there's no reason even to discuss it. And Taiwan contends that the islands are part of its historical territory.

Into this stepped Ma Ying-jeou, president of Taiwan. A year ago this month, he proposed what he called the East China Sea Peace Initiative, an effort to postpone the sovereignty debate and get on with life. Now, a year later, he and his aides like to note that it has received a lot of positive publicity -- though that's about all.

The initiative's basic principle is that the neighbors "will never give up on sovereignty," Ma said to me and a few others visiting his offices after a conference here on this subject. "So I reiterate: Sovereignty cannot be divided, but resources can." He wants the three states to sit down and negotiate a division of the resources, giving each a share of the oil, gas, coal -- and fish. (Already, Japan and Taiwan have negotiated a joint fisheries agreement.)

Ma's is a good, innovative idea. It reflects well on Taiwan, a marginalized little island. But in my view, it hasn't a chance of working, for reasons both historical and present-day.

To start with, in 1946, pushed by the West to clarify its maritime position, the Republic of China issued an official map showing its claim to nearly all of the south and east China seas. Few paid attention back then because three years later the Chinese Communist Party defeated the nationalist Kuomintang government and seized control of the country. The Kuomintang's leaders and followers fled to Taiwan, which they call the Republic of China. And there they remain -- the island's dominant political force today.

Then, in 2009, the United Nations asked every nation that signed the Law of the Sea treaty to provide documentation of any claims to maritime territory. So the Chinese Communist government simply pulled out that old 1946 map, drafted by the party it overthrew, and submitted it to the U.N.

This was the first time since 1946 that China had mentioned this map, drawn up by President Ma's long-ago political-party predecessors. And that spawned the entire south and east China sea conflicts.

Even now, Bruce J.D. Linghu, a director general in Taiwan's foreign affairs ministry, told me, "We claim all the islands in the South China Sea," based on that 1946 map. "At the time, no one opposed it."

Well, since China's 1949 revolution, mainland China has continued to assert that Taiwan is actually a Chinese province, despite Taiwan's longstanding sovereignty claims. The threats of invasion have diminished as Ma has strategically engineered closer relations with the mainland. More than 80 flights a day carry tourists and businessmen back and forth between Taiwan and China. And most of Taiwan's own manufacturing industry is located in China, where labor costs are lower.

Nonetheless, China says it would be pleased if Taiwan wins possession of the contested islands because Taiwan is part of China anyway. Almost immediately after taking office, China's new leader, Xi Jinping, insisted that he will never bargain over his nation's "core interests" -- including Taiwan.

Why would China sit down and negotiate with Taiwan over the sea rights? As China sees it, that would be like the United States negotiating sea rights with Hawaii.

And then, Japan and China despise each other, principally because Japan brutally occupied much of China during World War II. At the same time, Japan barely recognizes Taiwan. The two states negotiated their fisheries agreement through surrogates.

So are these three countries going to sit down together and negotiate reciprocal rights over all those rich resources in the East China Sea?

Not a chance.

Email: joel.brinkely@stanford.edu


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