Does the Republic of China (ROC) still exist? Imagine for a moment that the ROC government, which administers Taiwan, simply disappeared. Taiwan would chug right along, 23 million people still churning out products, drinking tea, and swapping memes on Facebook. There would still be some independent government, issuing passports and coining money. But what would happen to the ROC’s island claims, its resolute defense of a Chinese claim to the South China Sea, the Senkaku Islands of Japan, and its death grip on Matsu and Kinmen off China?
This question highlights the historical fact that none of these islands was ever owned by, or connected to, Taiwan.
This question highlights the historical fact that none of these islands was ever owned by, or connected to, Taiwan. Though Chinese expansionists like to claim that historical records show the Senkakus were administrated from Taiwan, that was never the case in reality. The islands, known as “The Uninhabited Islands” in Taiwanese, were known but their fishing grounds were not accessible to Taiwanese fishing boats until after 1895, when the Japanese revolutionized the local fishing industry by introducing motors, enabling fishermen to venture into the deep ocean for the first time. For all of ROC history up to the early 1970s the Senkakus were considered part of Japan (see this). The South China Sea islands were of course never part of any Taiwan-centered administration (the Japanese administered them formally from Taiwan for their brief occupation during World War II) and historically never considered part of China, let alone Taiwan. Finally, the islands of Kinmen and Matsu off China always belonged to whatever governments controlled the adjacent mainland.
Does the ROC government even exist? Yes, in part because of these island claims. Recall that while the ROC administrates Taiwan, it has no legal sovereignty over it. These island claims are the only places in the world where the ROC has existence as an independent sovereign entity, and for that reason alone ROC diehards guard those claims fiercely. But there are others, intimately involved with the Chinese dream of annexing Taiwan to China.
One of the functions of the ROC’s island claims is to get people to conflate them with claims of Taiwan.
One of the functions of the ROC’s island claims is to get people to conflate them with claims of Taiwan. This is common in the media, which is typically too lazy to clearly distinguish between the ROC and Taiwan. Thus one constantly reads “analysis” saying that “Taiwan claims islands in the South China Sea” or “Taiwan claims the Senkakus” even though “Taiwan” does no such thing — it is the ROC which makes the claim. This campaign is also aimed at domestic audiences in Taiwan in the hope that Taiwanese will start thinking of the Senkakus and the South China Sea islands as “theirs”.
A second function of these islands is as irritants that can be used to align Taiwan with China while distancing it from existing and prospective allies. Indeed, during the Administration of Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), President Ma Ying-jeou (2008–2016), whose thesis was on the ROC’s Senkaku Island claims, the ROC government appeared to coordinate with Beijing against Japan in the Senkakus. A CRS report tersely observed:
Some analysts argue that there is an issue for U.S. policymakers surrounding whether Taiwan coordinated with the PRC in asserting sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands against Japan amid rising tension in September 2012. Beijing has urged cooperation over the islands to advance cross-strait ties. Taipei’s officials have denied cooperating with the PRC. Even without explicit coordination, the parallel actions of the PRC and Taiwan in the current East China Sea flare-up have added pressure against Japan. Both the PRC and Taiwan deployed government patrol ships and military assets that raised concerns about the potential for accidental collisions and the escalation of tensions.
There is no question that Beijing has been working to bring Taiwan in on its side. Such an outcome would enormously complicate US actions in the Senkakus, should Beijing launch a war. US policymakers should work to keep pro-Taiwan administrations in power, if only for that reason.
Similarly, the ROC’s claims to the South China Sea Islands, modern inventions based on bogus history, complicate its relations with Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Indonesia, other claimants in the area. Since the ROC pretends to be “China”, its South China Sea claim is nearly identical to China’s.
This claim is promoted by ROC diehards to irritate relations with Taiwan’s southern neighbors. For example, in 2016 then-President Ma, an ROC diehard, visited Itu Aba (Taiping Island), the largest island in Spratlys, currently under ROC control. His visit occurred right after the crushing KMT defeat in the 2016 election, with the knowledge that in a few months President-elect Tsai would be pursuing an economic and diplomatic strategy aimed at cultivating the support of nations around the South China Sea. Ostensibly there to defend ROC sovereignty over Itu Aba, it was clear that Ma’s ultimate purpose was to position the island as an irritant for Tsai’s coming “Southbound” strategy. Ma’s visit was condemned by US officials.
The claims do more than just irritate relations — they complicate alliances. Why should Vietnam or the Philippines or Malaysia side with Taiwan in a war when its soldiers are squatting on their territory? More importantly, if China attacks Itu Aba but does not move against Taiwan proper, what will the US do? Will it intervene to protect the ROC (China) claim against the PRC (China) claim? That question holds when China invades Taiwan — should the US also act to protect Itu Aba and Pratas Island? The same goes for other states that might choose to intervene in a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Policymakers hate complications and situations that are difficult to understand, and the South China Sea mess is rich in both.
The ROC’s island claims are not only useful as irritants to relations with Japan and the South China Sea littoral states, they are also temptations and irritants for Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) politicians on the domestic political scene. DPP President Chen Shui-bian, an ardent Taiwan nationalist, visited Itu Aba in Feb of 2008 to indulge in some nationalist grandstanding, a dangerous move. A key KMT goal is to conflate Taiwan with ROC claims in the South China Sea. The KMT, which has great influence with the Fisherman’s Associations, has sought to portray Taiwan fishermen as victims of Japanese occupation in the Senkakus, and align the public with its claim. The public so far supports the fishermen, but does not support ROC claims.
More than just propping up the ROC as the government of China, the ROC island claims also inhibit independence in another way. What would happen to these claims if Taiwan became independent? Matsu and Kinmen would no doubt revert to China, but the scramble for Itu Aba could well touch off military conflict in the South China Sea if the future Taiwan Republic were to withdraw its troops from an island it does not own.
The media needs to be called to account for its lazy and historically uninformed reporting on the South China Sea.
To her credit, President Tsai, low key in so many foreign policy areas, has remained sensible on the Senkakus and the South China Sea. We need to help her. The media needs to be called to account for its lazy and historically uninformed reporting on the South China Sea, plagued by the usual media problems of false balance. Taiwan and US defense and diplomatic policymakers and Taiwan supporters, especially in the US, need to clearly and constantly separate Taiwan from the ROC claims when thinking, speaking, and writing on the situation. Pro-Taiwan politicians and analysts should also start thinking about how they can withdraw from these claims in a manner that prevents a war from starting.
Fortunately, the public at large in Taiwan remains cold to the ROC’s territorial claims. Taiwan supporters should remain vigilant. The ROC is propped up by the existence of the government on Taiwan, by its formal relations with the handful of small states that recognize it as the government of China, and by its islands. In the long run the latter two issues will have to be resolved if Taiwan is to move forward to an independent, democratic, and internationally recognized future.