Matters of Taiwan's Sovereignty and Discourse

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Friday June 21, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Taiwan's fishermen have been awash in a sea of troubles recently with their involvement in disputes north and south of the island. First there was the case with Japan over fishing rights and sovereignty vis-a-vis the Diaoyoutais/Senkakus Islands. That was barely calmed when the shooting of a Taiwan fisherman occurred in an area near the Philippines but still within Taiwan's claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). As happens in such cases as these, nations and their supportive historians will often put forth arguments and purported evidence to defend their claimed positions. But as also happens in such cases, their arguments can have a logic of their own that goes beyond their original intent and returns with a bite. Examine the case of sovereignty over the Diaoyoutais.

As the year 2012 closed, the Republic of China (ROC) government currently led by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) sought ways to bolster its claims both to fishing rights and to sovereignty over the Diayoutais. Shaw Yu-ming (邵玉銘), a professor at National Cheng-Chi University, chose an unusual approach to present Taiwan's and the ROC's case for sovereignty in his argument posted on the KMT website (December 5, 2012). In said argument, Shaw made an interesting distinction between the United States' (US) granting of sovereignty and of administrative control.

Shaw argued that since the 1950s, the US had promised to transfer the Ryukyu Islands, as well as the Diaoyutai Islands, to Japan. However, Shaw credited Chiang Kai-shek and the Republic of China with launching a Diaoyutais Islands defense movement in 1971 and thus "saving the day" for the ROC. He stated that despite the normalization of the developing US-Mainland China relations, the US had backed down because of the ROC defense and only transferred administrative control and not sovereignty over the Diaoyutais to Japan. Shaw's main argument in support of this rested not on any official documents from the US, but on the diaries of Chiang Kai-shek and herein lay the problem.

Shaw's argument rested on the perception and beliefs of Chiang Kai-shek and what he wrote in his diaries. Such a perspective may be good and a form of gospel truth to some members of the KMT and it may help legitimize their national discourse, but to the rest of the world they remain one man's interpretation of reality. Chiang claimed that he was purportedly "holding back" from a military solution in this issue only because it would "threaten Taiwan’s security." The obvious question to ask here, is how in 1971, could Chiang even contemplate and/or believe in a military confrontation with the US and Japan?

Going further, Chiang then claimed that this matter was "unfair," an unusual claim and again one which seems to indicate the KMT's imagined belief in the divine backing and the support of world justice in their position. In all this, Chiang exposes how both he and at least some of the KMT continued to rely on their personalized and rose-colored glasses perception of reality. It was a perception in which contrary to reality they could only visualize themselves as the legitimate but dispossessed heirs of the "Middle Kingdom."

Here however comes the twist and new reality check on the past. What is unsaid and neglected in Shaw's argument is the fact that the San Francisco Peace Treaty never has specified to whom Japan was to cede Taiwan. Further, the US has continued to repeatedly state on up to the present day that the matter of to whom Taiwan belongs remains "undecided."

Continuing in this vein, for Shaw and the KMT, there is unfortunately no official record of the US transferring sovereignty over Taiwan to the ROC. Instead, if one pursues this argument, all evidence points to a different distinction, one that undermines the KMT's long-term and questionable claim to its continued legitimacy on Taiwan. It is this distinction that will continue to get KMT pundits and scholars running back to past documents. It is even one that raises old issues of what basically the US means and has meant when it uses the phrase "one China."

Using Shaw's phrasing, this argument points out the distinction that the US allowed the KMT to have administrative control over Taiwan, but it never gave the KMT and its idea of the ROC sovereignty over Taiwan. In effect, the KMT then should best be viewed as a dispossessed diaspora that was allowed to both settle on Taiwan and set up a one-party state;an unfortunate situation for the Taiwanese but one that met the US national interests at the time. This distinction then even questions the past KMT narrative of its legitimacy.

So what to do now? One cannot go back and change the past and eliminate the sufferings that Taiwan endured under near 40 years of martial law by the KMT, nor can one deny the fact and result of Taiwan's struggle to achieve democracy. But there is a potential future direction to this conundrum, especially since Taiwan is now a democracy. The solution is that sovereignty over Taiwan does now belong to the Taiwanese and their democracy. This would not be that pleasant to the KMT nor to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as these two parties, reminiscent of Chiang Kai-shek continue to desire and try to settle the matter of Taiwan on a Chinese party-to-party basis. Nonetheless, I would hazard the supporting opinion that in addition to preserving the purported "status quo" of this island nation's democracy, it would be a solution most satisfactory to the US, Japan, and the Taiwanese people. It would also offer a way that would even fit the tenet of self-determination in the United Nations.