In mid-May, the Washington Post published a thoughtful, timely, well-reasoned, and thankfully provocative opinion piece by Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute calling for the normalization of relations with Taiwan. I would like to echo that call, as well as give further reasons why and how it could be done.
Over the past 45 years, in addition to the issue of American and Japanese abandonment of Taiwan in favor of the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s, one problem that has prevented closer ties between Japan and Taiwan, and has worried U.S. policymakers and diplomats over the years, has been that of the disputed Senkaku Islands, which have historically been a part of Japan (1895-1945; 1972- ) and are under Japanese administration today. (From 1945-1972, the islands were under U.S. military occupation and administrative control.)
Following the completion of a study in 1968 by the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East which found possible oil and other mineral reserves in the area and the signing of the Okinawa Reversion Agreement in June 1971 (just as the Richard M. Nixon administration was coordinating Henry A. Kissinger’s surprise visit to Peking), Taiwan (known as the Republic of China) and the PRC competitively both began to announce, quite belatedly, their claims over the islands, none of which is particularly valid or relevant.
Awkwardly, however, the Nixon administration failed to publicly recognize Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands at the time of reversion, even though the oral explanation by John Foster Dulles at the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty Conference stated that Japan had “residual sovereignty” over the Nansei Shoto islands, including Okinawa (which includes the Senkakus). America’s abrupt non-recognition of Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus in 1971 went against its own policies, deeply disappointed its more vital ally (Japan) while not appeasing its other then-ally, Taiwan, and directly contributed to the tensions in the East China Sea through a strategically ambiguous and laissez-faire approach.
While Taiwanese officials have been considerably moderate and mature over the decades on this issue, China has been vocal and aggressive, particularly as its military might grows. A real clash is highly likely, sooner or later, between the PRC and Japan, which, depending on how the scenario develops, might invoke Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty and lead to American forces assisting Japan.
The situation with Taiwan is nowhere near as serious, but it still struggles politically, internally, on the islands it calls Diaoyutai, as its government, since the days of Chiang Kai-Shek to today has long had to show domestically and internationally that it can best represent the Chinese people on this territorial problems. Regardless of the lack of contemporary Taiwanese interest in a “one China policy,” like any country, it cannot appear weak on matters of sovereignty, even though its case is.
It is here that I would like to suggest a grand bargain. The U.S. government should correct its mistaken policies of the past beginning by recognizing that Japan does indeed have sovereign rights over the Senkakus, while seeking to convince Taiwan and the PRC to go along. The latter of course won’t. However, with Taiwan, the U.S. government could privately explain ahead of time that it would get something in return, such as much closer relations including an agreement to recognize it as an independent nation, which it in fact already is—a “normal democratic country” in the words of Schmitt. Assuming Taiwan agrees, the latest democratically elected president, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, could use her current influence to seek domestic consensus. China might threaten war, but in doing so, it would be done on weak claims and go against the norms of international society, including Taiwan’s right of self-determination.
In recognition of Taiwan’s support of Japan’s position on the Senkakus once and for all, Japan should also at the same time recognize Taiwan, as its relations have historically been even closer than those between Taiwan and the United States.
The unnatural state of relations between Taiwan and the United States, and Japan and Taiwan, would thus immediately be improved, and the issue of the Senkakus would largely be resolved. Hold-out China’s claims on the Senkakus do not stand up to historical scrutiny, and any use of military force would be met by the Japan-U.S. alliance, strengthened now with U.S. reaffirmation of its original policy. Its bully-like methods in the South China Seas is uniting the region against it in a way never seen before, not only in the SCS but the East China Sea too. The situation is not only increasingly unstable, but also unsustainable.
The U.S. government has an ideal chance, now, to bring real, long-lasting peace to the East China Seas with this move. The timing under a strongly pro-U.S. leader, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, in Japan, and a new, international, and popular president in Taiwan who has already moderated her nationalist predecessor’s stance on another territorial issue (Okinotori Island), has never been better.
During his recent visit to Asia, President Obama had the chance to hear first-hand from countries concerned with Chinese expansionism. The Shangri-La security meetings just finished, and bilateral discussions continue. Let’s hope that the first move can be diplomatic, along the lines above, rather than military. Let’s hope, too, as well that China expresses its national aspirations in more peaceful ways than it has displayed in recent years.
Eldridge, who currently resides in Okinawa, served as the political advisor to the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan from 2009-2015, and is the author of The Origins of U.S. Policy in the East China Sea Islands Dispute and The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem (both from Routledge).