Another Taiwan Tragedy: Taiwan, China, and Vietnam

Those who have followed me on various social media outlets know I’ve been quite critical of Taipei’s handling of the latest round of Sino-Vietnam tensions which have invariably—yes, invariably—involved Taiwan. Regardless of my political and ideological inclinations regarding the current government in Taipei, I find Taiwan’s inclusion in the recent spat an unnecessary but ultimately unavoidable tragedy for Taiwan. Allow me to explain before the word “contradiction” leads the skeptical reader to close this window and refrain from reading the remainder of this post.

More than a few locals have made the assertion that Vietnamese for one reason or other cannot tell the difference between Taiwan and China. I have politely shied away, with the exception of several incidents, from commenting simply because I know that get involved directly will only cost me time better spent doing just about anything else. Most have criticized the government for not “acting sufficiently” to protect Taiwanese nationals in Vietnam. What that means for them is anyone’s guess, although for me it means that Taipei must make a move it will not make.

To be sure, Taiwan’s—or, rather, the Republic of China’s (ROC)[1]—territorial claims in the South China Sea are no different that those of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).[2] Vietnam’s direct grievances are with the PRC, but the ROC is indirectly involved not merely because the actions of Vietnamese protesters have involved the ROC but because the ROC’s position is at once both clear and ambiguous.

The ROC, to be brief, claims precisely the same territories, as the “rightful government of all of China,” as the PRC. This inevitably involves the ROC in all South China Sea territorial disputes regardless of the PRC’s unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of the ROC, and vice versa. Hence, it is not so much that Vietnamese cannot tell the difference between Taiwan and China (or the ROC and PRC, respectfully) as it is that to the Vietnamese there is no difference between the two when it comes to territorial disputes. Until Taiwanese realize this—and from my experiences, very few people on Taiwan, whether they consider themselves Taiwanese, Chinese, or Taiwanese-Chinese, would consider changing the ROC’s territorial claims in the South China Sea—theirs will forever be a tragedy.

For as long as China tests the limits of its neighbors’ tolerance in Southeast Asia, so too will Taiwan inevitably get sucked into the fray (again, regardless of recognition). It is possible, from this perspective, to see a future Taiwan labeled a pariah just as China might be labeled a pariah among Southeast Asian nations, not to mention those states that will pay a price should tensions lead to open conflict (namely, Japan and the United States).

And what is worse, if China’s rise continues and if it continues to test the waters (no pun intended) regarding U.S., Japanese, and South China Sea claimant states’ resolve (and perhaps even initiate conflict), Taiwan’s risk will only grow. Where I diverge from the average local, it seems, is that I view this as Taiwan reaping only what it has sown (and I use “Taiwan” here because even “Taiwanese” tend to back the ROC’s South China Sea territorial claims).

Taiwan’s position is both clear and ambiguous because although it quite obviously claims the same area as the PRC (clear) its position with regard to the PRC’s testing has been ambiguous. This is because, if I am allowed to make an educated speculation, in the perfect world of the ROC (and perhaps even Taiwan) the PRC would collapse, the ROC would become the government of both Taiwan and China, and the ROC could then use all the resources of a “united” or “re-united” China to push the same territorial agenda. Moreover, in order for the ROC to legitimately claim to be the sole and rightful government of all of China, it must make essentially the same territorial claims it has always made. And let’s not forget that the current government would likely not want to risk alienating China and being labeled “splittist” for backing away from China-centric territorial claims.

Hence, another of Taiwan’s tragedies: were China and neighboring states (and perhaps Japan and the United States) to come to blows, Taiwan simply could not sit idly paring its proverbial fingernails. It’s fence-riding strategy would force it to make an impossible decision: join the other claimants (plus perhaps Japan and the United States) in denouncing China (a de facto renunciation of the ROC’s own territorial claims) and perhaps even coming to blows with the Asian behemoth, or joining the PRC and becoming a regional pariah. One can only guess as to the path Taipei might choose, but it may vary with who is in office.

My own humble opinion is that Taipei is better off renouncing claims in the South China Sea beyond Itu Aba Island, which it already administers. Of course, I risk becoming a pariah in my own adoptive home for such a claim, and I’m sure I’ll be greeted with more than an occasional snicker from the die-hard reader. But let me qualify my opinion by adding to it: Taipei would be best served by renouncing all claims in the South China Sea beyond Itu Aba Island (and perhaps renouncing even Itu Aba Island), but it also certainly will not do so. That ought to put an end to the snickers—but not put and end to another of Taiwan’s tragedies.


[1] I make the distinction here not due to ideological or political inclinations but simply because there is no island named “the ROC.”

[2] To be sure, the ROC’s territorial claims in Asia and the Pacific, at least at present, are even more strident than those of the PRC; see, for example, here.


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