Synchronizing the Narratives: Chinese Political Warfare, Taiwan, and the South China Sea

Growing interaction between Chinese and Taiwanese academics risks sending the wrong signal to Washington
J. Michael Cole

Timing might not be everything, but it’s at least half of it. At a time when one hopes that tempers would cool down in the disputed South China Sea, a new exhibit, organized by the National Archives Administration in Taipei seeks to bolster the Republic of China’s territorial claims in the volatile region. Although the claims are longstanding, the timing of the「中華民國南疆史料特展」exhibit, coinciding as it did with a cross-strait conference in which academics from Taiwan and China discussed the need to join hands to “defend” the South China Sea from external enemies, sends the wrong signal to other claimants in the region, not to mention the U.S., Taiwan’s principal ally and guarantor of security.

The exhibit itself, which runs through Oct. 31 at Academia Historica (a second one will open in Kaohsiung Oct. 9 and Taichung Nov. 17), is relatively insignificant. That isn’t to say that one should not be interested in the artifacts for their historical value. It is, rather, insignificant because other claimants also have the ability summon a wealth of documents, maps, photos, and notebooks to support their own claims to the disputed islets, features, and waters within the SCS. And it is insignificant because territorial expansionism and nationalism, not international law, and certainly not dusty documents, are what has been driving the dispute, which periodically threatens to plunge the region into terrible spasms of hostility.

Despite its voice being rarely heard at international conference, Taiwan is a claimant to the area, and currently controls the largest island in the Spratlys, Itu Aba, also known as Taiping Island. Despite the presence of Coast Guards on Taiping, the island, located some 1,600km from Taiwan’s southernmost point, is of little defensive value to Taiwan proper and, more importantly, is hardly defensible, especially if the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attempted to seize it. Simply imagine the extraordinary challenge of securing the sea lines of communication (SLOC) between Kaohsiung and Taiping, and you will understand the folly of trying to defend it in wartime against a much stronger opponent equipped with submarines, modern warships, and capable navy aircraft.

Nevertheless, Taiwan, under both Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administrations, has refused to relinquish its claims, as if the islets were sacred jewels. Proposals to trade control of Taiping, or to abandon Taiwan’s territorial claims in the SCS, in exchange for the promise of better relations with neighbors within the region (not to mention the U.S.), have been met with derision in Taipei. In one particular instance, a Western academic who floated such an initiative was subsequently told that as she isn’t “Chinese,” she could not understand the “great dishonor” that doing so would cause their (the academic’s Taiwanese interlocutors) “Chinese ancestors.” More soberly, Taiwanese officials and academics have also argued that maintaining the claims to the region ensures that Taiwan retains a seat, which it nonetheless doesn’t always get, at the negotiating table. Yet another explanation is that Taiping and other islets are near seabed that may contain rich hydrocarbon resources (Beijing, among others, has tended to inflate the volume and value of potential hydrocarbons in the region, ostensibly to help validate its claims in the SCS while masking the military/territorial aspects of its expansionism).

Although the exhibit, by publicly displaying symbols Taipei’s intransigence (as opposed to simply clarifying its legal narrative), might succeed in irritating the U.S., we would be remiss if we didn’t point out the fact that, as the Central News Agency opined in a recent report on the occasion, Taiwan “has called for rational discussion and joint exploration of the maritime resources there,” which starkly contrasts with Beijing’s approach, that is, to “aggressively mobilize ships to defend its claims.”

That may be so. But there’s a small problem, and this one didn’t receive the publicity that it deserves. Just two days before the exhibit opened its doors (with President Ma Ying-jeou [馬英九] attending), a seminar on the South China Sea dispute was held in Taipei. One notable participant at the forum was Wu Shicun (吳士存), president of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS, 中國南海研究院), a國家級, or “national institute,” which is attached to the Hainan Provincial Government and works under the policy guidance of the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China and the State Oceanic Administration. (Wu is also a delegate to the Hainan legislature and a former director-general of the Foreign Affairs Office of Hainan Province.) As Thinking Taiwan reported earlier this year, three top Taiwanese experts on the SCS were given honorary positions at the NISCSS (their names and photographs, which appeared at the top of the list of “fellows,” have since been removed from the site).

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More troubling, perhaps, is the fact that Wu has visited the exhibition and that, according to unconfirmed reports, he was present at the opening ceremony presided by Ma. Needless to say, the latter bit of information yields problematic optics, even under the best light. (Sources also tell us that following the inauguration, Wu was to participate at a two-day workshop.)

According to the NISCSS, Wu attended the aforementioned Aug. 30 forum in Taipei, where he “offered several suggestions on practical cross-strait cooperation in the South China Sea.”

And that is the part where officials in Washington, D.C., get a tad nervous. “Cross-strait cooperation” in the SCS.

Ever since China escalated military in the area, in the process destroying all illusions of a “peaceful rise,” Beijing has called upon Taipei to work with it in defending the SCS, or has sought to create the illusion that Taiwan was amenable to such cooperation (it has made similar calls over the East China Sea, where China is embroiled in a heated dispute with Tokyo over another series of small islets, the Senkaku/Diaoyutais).

Wu has been here before. Earlier this year, he attended another seminar in Taipei, this one organized by the pro-Beijing Want Daily, on cross-strait cooperation in the SCS. He also led a Chinese delegation at the 11th Cross-Strait Forum on the South China Sea Issue on Feb. 19. The forum was initiated in 2002 by the NISCSS and National Chengchi University, at a time when Chinese behavior in the region was much milder, and therefore far less alarming, than it has been in recent years. According to the NISCSS web site, the forum has “played a positive role in maintaining China’s sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea.”

Outwardly “moderate,” the globetrotting Wu (I first met him at a June 2012 conference organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.) has been a tireless instrument of Chinese propaganda regarding Beijing’s “historical claims” to the SCS. Among other things, he has articulated the view that China’s Nine-Dash Line claims to the SCS should not be subjected to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), because the former predates the international convention by nearly half a century. “A basic principle of international law is non-retroactivity. Today’s law cannot overwrite existing facts of the past,” Wu told an international symposium in Nanjing last month. (Interestingly, President Ma also failed to mention UNCLOS during his remarks at the exhibition.)

In a separate setting, Wu argued that UNCLOS was the product of “Western guidance” and that “we should rebuild through various methods of regional co-operation a more reasonable, fairer and more just international maritime order that is guided by us.” The remark prompted Douglas Paal, a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan and now an academic at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, to ask, “How much of the temple do they actually want to tear down?” Besides perhaps representing the school of thought in Beijing that seeks to “reorder” the world according to Chinese preferences, Wu has also been a proponent of a bilateral approach to conflict resolution in the SCS, in which Beijing will always be the stronger party. Underscoring his disdain for the multilateral solution desired by everybody else in the region, Wu has also said that “Washington’s actions in taking sides are one of the origins of the tensions in the South China Sea in recent years.” (Washington has “taken sides” because the much stronger Beijing has constantly bullied its neighbors and threatened force against them.)

To be fair to Wu, his has been a relatively mild voice in a chorus of increasingly belligerent brass instruments in China’s academic and military circles. However, it is this ostensibly reasonable approach that has made him a more palatable counterpart among some Taiwanese academics and officials. There is therefore a very high possibility that Wu’s activities are a softer component of China’s political warfare directed against Taiwan, the U.S., and other countries in the region. Through his “recruiting” of Taiwanese academics and his participation in forums in Taiwan, Wu may be on a mission to synchronize the two countries’ narrative on the SCS, or outwardly give the impression that such a process is happening. The goal? To exacerbate distrust between Washington and Taipei, and by dint of repetition to foster the image of China and Taiwan as two sides of the same coin in this increasingly volatile part of the world.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

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