China, Taiwan Warming to Military Cooperation in the South China Sea?

China, Taiwan Warming to Military Cooperation in the South China Sea?

The Taiwanese government of President Ma Ying-jeou has denied that it harbors plans for siding with Beijing in territorial disputes over the South China Sea. Yet the notion that the resource-rich and strategic waters should be the starting point for cross-Strait military cooperation is gaining traction on the island.

Since last year, the People's Liberation Army Academy has repeatedly called for cooperation with Taiwan in protecting "common ancestral rights" in the region's disputed waters. At the same time, China has regularly invited retired Taiwanese military brass to cross-Strait symposiums where cooperation in the South and East China Seas as well as over the disputed Diayutai Islands -- administered by Japan as the Senkaku -- is frequently a prominent topic. From a Chinese perspective, as long it is firmly placed under the "one China principle," the offer of such cooperation is plausible, and not only because the territorial claims made by Beijing and Taipei are all but identical. With confidence growing on the Chinese side that unification will eventually come about, for Beijing, Taipei is a useful placeholder for the Dongsha/Pratas Islands and Taiping/Ibu Ata Island, both presently controlled by the Taiwanese.

So far, given the issue's sensitivity, Taiwan's Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) government has not allowed the discussion to take place on an official level. But a KMT think tank has already proposed cross-Strait cooperation on energy in the South China Sea, as well as the joint use of Taiwan's facilities on Taiping. Moreover, in a book recently jointly published by scholars belonging to China's Foreign Ministry-affiliated National Institute for South China Sea Studies and Taiwan's National Chengchi University, both sides strongly argued for joint efforts to safeguard sovereignty over disputed territories. Intriguingly, both sides also question the legality of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the very regulation cited by Washington to support Southeast Asian countries' claims in the region.

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