by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Military News Agency
WHY IS MA YING-JEOU is making disputed South China Seas islands and territorial waters such an issue as of late, at risk of provoking tensions with neighboring countries? Ma’s actions as of late would seem to be beyond rhyme or reason, provoking conflict with Japan over the Okinotori islet and raising tensions once again regarding Itu Aba, also claimed by China, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
Ma’s actions come in the wake of a January visit to Itu Aba, shortly after 2016 presidential elections, to reinforce Taiwan’s claims over Itu Aba and to maintain that Itu Aba is a habitable island, so as to prevent its legal downgrading to the status of a “rock”. Taiwan currently administers the island, maintaining fortifications, military barracks, a hospital, radar and satellite facilities, and a temple on the island, and the presence of two hundred members of the Taiwanese military.
Ma during his visit to Itu Aba. Photo credit: Presidential Office
Ma’s actions in visiting Itu Aba were condemned by the United States, among others, for disrupting stability in the South China Seas regions, when he had previously been viewed by some as a pragmatic peacemaker on the issue of disputed South China Seas territories. During his visit to Itu Aba, Ma invited DPP president Tsai Ing-Wen to send a representative, but the DPP declined. However, the issue remains one Ma will not leave be, Thursday seeing a visit of senior KMT officials to Itu Aba including Hau Pei-tsun, Mao Chi-kuo, and Su Chi.
Conflict over the Okinotori islet comes from that Japan claims Okinotori to be an island and Taiwan claims Okinotori to be a reef. As such, Taiwan and Japan dispute territorial waters around Okinotori as a result of these differing definitions, something which China and South Korea also dispute with Japan. No other country claims Okinotori as its territory apart from Japan. However, Ma has leapt upon the opportunity in order to pose as a defender of Taiwanese sovereignty. On the other hand, Taiwan also has a claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, better known as hotly disputed territory between Japan and China, which is another source of tension Japan, but one which to date Japan seems to have been willing to put aside in order to build relations with the incoming Tsai government.
Why such actions from Ma at this juncture in his career, when Ma is on the way out as a lame duck president? It seems that Ma is attempting to stir up trouble for his successor, Tsai Ing-Wen, by worsening ties with potential allies of Taiwan under Tsai which Tsai could ally with against China such as Japan and the Philippines. Japan would be of particular importance to Ma’s attempts to sabotage Tsai’s foreign policy, Tsai having cultivated close ties to the current Abe government during the past election season.
Protect the Diaoyu Islands Movement demonstration in front of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City in January 1971
But in regards to Ma’s attempts to cause trouble for Tsai, there is also the strong element of KMT ideology. Apart from attempting to sabotage Tsai’s relation with Japan, a potential ally against China, there is also the factor of the traditional KMT antagonism against Japan as a product of the Chinese nationalism it upholds.
And the issue of Taiwan’s outlying island territories has long been an issue near and dear to KMT ideology. Within KMT ideology, Taiwan’s outlying island territories—disputed by traditional enemies of “cultural China” such as Japan—are sacred territory, which the Republic of China at all costs cannot forfeit, as part of the sacred, inviolable Chinese motherland from time immemorial.
The call to hold onto disputed territories in the KMT has historically has gone hand in hand with the call for reunification with China. This saw greatest expression in the 1970 to 1972, the Protect the Diaoyu Islands Movement among overseas, Chinese-identified Taiwanese studying in the US from 1970 to 1972 to return sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu to ROC hands, which later morphed into a movement with a more general call for reunification between Taiwan and China and spread from America to Taiwan itself. Perhaps in the movement, we can see in microcosm the trajectory of the KMT over the last decades. But the call to preserve island territories for the ROC is one that, within the ideological spectrum of lighter and deeper shades of blue within KMT ideology, has specifically has been associated with fervent pro-unification sentiment.
The issue has long since been vital importance to Ma himself. Ma was a participant in the Protect the Diaoyu Islands movement. Ma wrote his doctoral dissertation, “Trouble Over Oily Waters: Legal Problems of Seabed Boundaries and Foreign Investments in the East China Sea”, on this issue of disputed island territories. We see another example in the centrality of this issue to the KMT in that traditionalist old guard stalwart Hau Pei-tsun was among those who took the trouble traveling to the remote Itu Aba by plane, despite the fact that Hau is some 96 years old at present.
Senior KMT politicians posing for a photo on Itu Aba. Photo credit: ETToday
As some have pointed out, it may be that with his legacy in tatters, as a lame duck president, Ma has thrown at last thrown all caution to the wind. With his popularity among the general Taiwanese public at an all low, Ma may be seeking to preserve his legacy only within the deep echelons of the KMT now, and this is who he may be attempting to appeal to with his actions.
Ma’s current actions are ironic for those who previously viewed his policies as pragmatic in nature, aimed at maintaining peaceful relations with Taiwan’s neighbors, as many western commentators thought of Ma earlier in his presidency. But Ma’s loyalty, after all, was only ever to the Republic of China and not to Taiwan, hence it does not matter what effects his current actions have on foreign policy for Taiwan going forward. This is what we see very clearly now.