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The China Times, Taiwan

Conflict in the West Pacific:
Unmasking American ‘Smart Power’

Can the U.S. 'return to Asia' build a new line of containment around mainland China?

Translated By Nathan Hsu

30 May 2013

Edited by Chris Basham


Taiwan - The China Times - Original Article (Chinese)

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a strong proponent of "smart power." This so-called "smart power" consists of the U.S. instigating disputes over sovereignty in the East and South China Seas between China and other countries, then reaping the benefits that follow at no cost to itself.

Following China's decline in the modern age, it lost control over its maritime territories. After World War II, with Taiwan and China divided, the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and the Spratlys in the South both lay within the "Taiwan area of the Republic of China." Unable to even take back mainland China, however, the Republic of China lacked the wherewithal to effectively administer those islands. The mainland government, meanwhile, was preoccupied with its "three-anti" and "five-anti" campaigns, the Cultural Revolution and the "liberation of Taiwan," and was likewise unable to exert any influence over the islands. As a result, besides Japan's occupation of the Diaoyu, many islands in the South China Sea which had always belonged to China were also snatched away by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and other states, while Taiwan held onto the Spratlys' Taiping Island.

Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam have all responded to Clinton's "smart power" strategy. Her efforts to inflame issues of sovereignty between China and those countries have indeed had the desired effect, essentially allowing the U.S. to conduct business in the region without any need for investment of its own. The aforementioned islands still fall within the Taiwan area of the Republic of China. As president of the Republic of China, can Ma Ying-jeou claim no stake in or turn a blind eye to the occupation of his government's sovereign territory in the Taiwan area?

Since last year, the Diaoyu Islands issue has become increasingly "nationalized," and the fishing season is now approaching once more. Still, Ma was willing to risk crossing Chinese on both sides of the strait with his staunch refusal to join forces with the mainland to protect Diaoyu. But this led to other questions: When Taiwanese fishermen ventured into traditional fishing grounds, would they be expelled or arrested? If Japan did not act, would they be abandoning their claim to sovereignty? If Japan did take action and mainland Chinese ships came to the defense of Taiwanese fishing boats, could the fishermen reject their help? What if Japan opened fire upon those mainland Chinese ships? If Ma made Taiwanese fishermen accept protection from mainland ships, would he be ousted from the presidency? Consequently, Ma would have to dispatch the coast guard to protect fishermen, but what if Japan fired upon the Taiwanese coast guard?

During the Cold War, Taiwan was situated within the central link of the island chain that comprised America's first line of defense in the West Pacific. If Taiwan and China collaborate to protect Diaoyu, that line is broken. Accordingly, under pressure from the U.S., Japan has quickly moved to sign a fishing agreement with Taiwan prior to the start of the fishing season.

Hereafter, although Taiwanese fishermen will not be permitted to land on the islands in the traditional Diaoyu fishing grounds, they will also not be expelled. In other words, Japan will not expel Taiwanese fishing boats to "safeguard" its sovereignty over Diaoyu, which is to say that Taiwanese fishermen need no longer quarrel with the Japanese or require protection, much less require Taiwan to unite in common cause with China. Short of opening fire, Japan has no means of warding off the regular patrols of mainland Chinese vessels, and again, will not expel Taiwanese fishing boats in a show of protecting its sovereignty. If this situation holds, Taiwan and Japan will have no further conflict over Diaoyu, and neither will Japan and China come to blows. Although much controversy exists at the heart of the Diaoyu issue, it has largely been peaceful. For the time being, at least, there is no conflict between Taiwan and Japan; the danger of an armed clash between Japan and China has been defused.

Clinton wished to use Diaoyu as bait in her smart power strategy to incite conflict between China and Japan. Although President Ma declared that Taiwan and China are not joining together, Ma's insistence on protecting fishermen around Diaoyu has weakened that statement.

Additionally, although the Philippines ultimately backed down from a standoff with mainland China over Huangyan Island that lasted over a month, one of its ships raked fire across Taiwanese fishing boat Guang Da Xing No. 28 on May 9, killing fisherman Hung Shih-cheng. Preliminary reports following the incident stated that an "unknown vessel" of the Philippines had fired upon one of our fishing boats. Initially, after meeting with Jiang Yi-huah to discuss the matter, Ma directed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to express the administration's serious concern and request that the Philippines immediately investigate the details of the incident to bring the killers to justice. Apart from this, Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office and the Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued rare synchronous and mutually aligned statements, both condemning the attack and requesting an investigation, as well as punitive action against the killers.

The U.S. favors the Philippines in its spat with Taiwan, but neither can Washington allow the issue to push Taiwan into an alliance with mainland China. In truth, this U.S. position is identical to the one that it maintains in disagreements between Taiwan and Japan.

Obviously, the U.S. is aware that the Spratly and Diaoyu Islands are the same, in that both in fact fall within the Taiwan area of the Republic of China. Washington wishes to utilize the Spratlys to strike a blow at Chinese sovereignty, but Taiwan has ultimately been the one to suffer the most. Therefore, it is not Taiwan that has persisted in antagonizing U.S. allies, but precisely the opposite. Since the U.S. does not view Taiwan as an ally, Taiwan has no need to treat the U.S. as one. In the end, is this more dangerous to Taipei or to Washington?

As of yet, there is no way of knowing whether or not the conflict between Taiwan and the Philippines will be resolved in similar fashion to Diaoyu and will be decided through negotiations on fisheries. If the situation escalates without resolution, the U.S. will be forced to pick a side, which would clearly put them in a difficult position. The strategic focus of the U.S. is mainland China, not Taiwan, but the situation has been forced upon us. Can the U.S. "return to Asia" build a new line of containment around mainland China?

If in the end Taiwan and the Philippines also reach a fishing agreement, the Philippines will cease to be at odds with the Republic of China over the "Taiwan area" and will subsequently also have no quarrel with the Republic of China over sovereignty relating to the "mainland area." The South China Sea will be quiet once more, but what then will the U.S. seize upon next to stir up tensions between the Philippines and China?

The U.S. "return to Asia" is meant to contain the mainland. Regardless of the amount of "smart power" leveraged, however, it cannot hope to succeed; in addition to various macro-level factors, Taiwan is a big reason why.



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