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US military might ensures Beijing's bark is worse than its bite

By Benjamin Herscovitch - posted Monday, 17 March 2014

Beijing seems increasingly impatient to enforce its claims to disputed territory across East Asia.

In the East China Sea, China sought to pave the way for de facto sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in November last year with the creation of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). The ADIZ covers territory claimed by South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, and requires any aircraft entering the zone to identify itself to Chinese authorities.

Then in January this year, Beijing issued new restrictions on non-Chinese fishing boats in disputed areas of the South China Sea, and used a law enforcement vessel to blast Filipino fishermen with water cannons for straying into territory it claims as its own.


If these Chinese strongarm tactics did not send a clear enough message, Foreign Minister Wang Yi made Beijing's intentions explicit earlier this month: With China prepared to 'defend every inch of territory' that it claims, Beijing has signalled that 'there is no room for compromise in territorial and historical issues.'

In other words, China will not be content until it has seized vast tracts of land and sea from Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and other East Asian nations, including up to 90% of the South China Sea and islands that have been administered by Japan for more than 100 years.

Despite these worrying signals, Taiwan's experience shows that US security guarantees can keep China's territorial assertiveness from jeopardising peace and stability, while also acting as a powerful bulwark against potentially runaway Chinese demands.

Since the nationalist Kuomintang withdrew to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War, the reunification of what Beijing considers a 'renegade province' with the 'motherland' has been a non-negotiable core plank of Chinese Communist Party policy.

Nevertheless, Beijing has come to accept, albeit reluctantly, indefinite de facto Taiwanese independence.

The Taiwan Relations Act(TRA)-which has governed US-Taiwanese relations since Washington formally switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979-establishes a strong US commitment to safeguarding Taiwan's security and resisting any non-peaceful Chinese attempts to reintegrate Taiwan.


By authorising arms sales to Taiwan and requiring that the United States maintain the capacity to resist threats to the island nation's security, the TRA has chastened China's appetite for control of Taiwan and provided the backdrop for warming Sino-Taiwanese relations.

With President Ma Ying-jeou's election in 2008, Taipei initiated a policy of engagement with Beijing on the basis of the 'three no's'-no unification, no independence, and no use of force.

By focusing on mutually beneficial economic ties with China and deferring the push for de jure Taiwanese independence, the Ma administration has presided over a boom in business links, and in February this year, even secured the first official meeting between Taiwan and mainland China since 1949.

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About the Author

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and previously worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Follow him on Twitter @B_Herscovitch.

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All articles by Benjamin Herscovitch

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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