Look who's trying to defuse tension in the East China Sea

Taiwan's calls for talks about China's new air zone aren't being taken too seriously. Here's why there may be something more to them.

AP Photo/Kyodo News/File
A survey ship, left, chartered by Tokyo city officials, sails around the tiny islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese in this file photo.

News that hasn’t hit the headlines – yet

Ever since China declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over contested territory in the East China Sea, its neighbors have been quick to slam China’s moves – and bolster their own claims.

Every neighbor that is, except Taiwan – who also has an air zone now overlapped by China’s, and who also has territorial claims in the East China Sea.

But while Japan has responded by sending fighter jets through China’s zone, and South Korea expanded its own ADIZ, Taiwan is quietly calling for a different solution: actually talking to each other.

Taiwan has issued three calls for peace talks since China declared its zone Nov. 23 in order to defuse the tension.

On the surface, no one is taking Taiwan seriously. China sees the island 160 kilometers offshore as part of its territory since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, not as a country empowered to conduct diplomacy. Japan, South Korea, and the United States recognize Beijing, not Taipei. China would erupt if they sat down with Taiwan. 

“In reality Taiwan has no bargaining chips,” says Nathan Liu, international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan. “It would be very difficult for Taiwan to say something or do anything too irrational or too serious.”  

But Taiwan “actually gains,” just by proposing talks - even if they never materialize, Mr. Liu says.

The recent calls for talks, on the heels of an East China Sea peace initiative outlined by Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou last year, could impress Japan and the United States. That, in turn, could shore up informal relations with a growing number of deliverables, such as high-level visits, expanded maritime rights, and trade deals. 

Mr. Ma made his latest pitch for peace Wednesday before Raymond Burghardt, a de facto US diplomat in charge of Taiwan. US officials hint that Taiwan’s cooperative stance on China over the past three years has earned it more high-level visits from Washington, including trips in 2013 by Ed Royce, House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, and Robert Wang, State Department senior official for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation affairs.

Taiwan hopes such visits ultimately will pay off with a hard-to-get trade liberalization deal with the United States and a spot in the Trans Pacific Partnership, a regional trading bloc being formed under US guidance.

Taiwan also counts former colonizer Japan as a friend and has avoided confronting it over competing maritime claims. In April, Tokyo and Taipei reached a rare deal to let Taiwanese boats fish in disputed waters also claimed by China, a slight against Beijing.

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