Apr 11, 2013 | 07:21 GMT

5 mins read

Taiwan's Identity and Regional Balance

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The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed serious concern Wednesday after Japan and Taiwan signed a fishing agreement around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, a focus of trilateral standoffs among the three claimants. Under the agreement, Japan and Taiwan will jointly manage an area in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Taiwanese fishermen will be able to operate in this area except within 12 nautical miles of the disputed islands currently under Japan’s control.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.

Wednesday's agreement is aimed at mitigating fishing disputes between Taiwan and Japan that began in 1996, when Japan enacted its own law to govern its exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf. The law prohibited fishermen from nearby countries from operating near the Japanese-controlled islands. In fact, despite requests by Taipei, Tokyo showed little interest in making any progress in the previous round of negotiations. Tokyo has apparently shifted its perspective since tensions over the island heightened in 2012. Japan is concerned that China and Taiwan's historical claims to the island chain — as well as both countries' anti-Japanese sentiment — could trigger cross-strait cooperation against Japan.

By allowing Taiwanese fishermen into the waters, Tokyo is attempting to neutralize Taiwan in the trilateral sovereignty disputes without undermining Japan's own sovereignty claim. At the same time, by legitimating Taipei's presence in waters Beijing also claims as its own, Tokyo is looking to capitalize on the complicated relationship between Taipei and Beijing in order to justify Japanese authority in the disputed waters and to further distance Taipei from Beijing.

Despite being a key claimant over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands (which Taiwan refers to as the Diaoyutai Islands), Taipei’s stake has been severely constrained by Taiwan's lack of international status and its relations with Beijing. Taiwan and China both claim the disputed islands on the basis that they were historically Chinese waters. In addition, Taiwan is limited by its need to balance the interests of Japan and the United States with Taiwan's own security concerns, in particular those stemming from mainland China. As such, Taipei’s claim over the islands has always been sidelined in broader regional maritime disputes. Nonetheless, as tensions between Japan and China persist, Taipei sees an opportunity to expand its own maritime interests, which are critical to the island’s economy and its security environment. This, combined with Taiwan's growing difficulties in escaping China's economic reach and dealing with its superior military capability, gives Taipei reason both to pursue a more pragmatic approach for rebuilding its identity and to demonstrate independence from Beijing.  

A critical element of contemporary society and politics in Taiwan is the challenge of defining its national identity. Given its geopolitical context and the state of cross-strait relations following the retreat of the Nationalist government in 1949, the presence in Taiwan of various ethnic groups and heavy political infighting — primarily between native populations and early generations of migrants from mainland China — have caused Taiwan to struggle with divergent national and ethnic identities.

During the early Cold War period, a close relationship with the United States allowed Taipei to maintain its status as a legitimate government of China on the international stage. This, together with island’s rapid economic growth from the 1950s to the 1970s, contributed to the growth of a Taiwanese national pride that stood separate from its ethnic origins. Taiwan's international status, however, declined when Washington shifted its strategic focus and prioritized its relationship with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s. This, along with the prevailing resentment against the Kuomintang government through the 1980s before the end of martial law, prompted the island nation to seriously reconsider its identity in light of China's growing recognition.

The end of martial law and the political opening up of Taiwan in the late 1980s made it possible to politicize the identity issue. Bipartisan competition led to ambivalence over Taiwan's national identity and anxiety about the collective identity of the Taiwanese population. Capitalizing on the sentiment, Taiwanese administrations under Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian both aimed to rebuild Taiwan’s identity through independence from China. This contributed to tense relations with Beijing throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, but the idea became increasingly embedded in the Taiwanese population, particularly among the younger generation. 

When the Kuomintang government regained power in 2008, its foreign policy focused on building “international space” for Taiwan, with a particular focus on exploiting Taiwan’s economic potential and geographic location. In other words, it centered on cooperation with China to gain economic benefits and a dialing down of China's attempts to constrain the island nation economically and militarily. This is not to say that the Kuomintang dropped independence as a political point of focus. Instead, Taipei hoped to create a relatively calm environment that would benefit Taipei’s development and international status as an independent entity. Despite this, the Kuomintang's approach was often blamed for being too friendly to Beijing and for sacrificing Taiwan's national identity. 

Taipei’s latest move in the East China Sea demonstrates its intention to reassert its status as an independent player, and it inevitably puts Beijing in an odd position in the maritime disputes. Nonetheless, Beijing’s greatest challenge could be Taiwan's rising national identity. The rise of the younger generation — which has a declining recognition of China's national identity compared to the previous generation — and growing resistance to Chinese economic and military expansion among the general public, make it difficult for Beijing to economically harness the strategies it has currently adopted.

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