Thursday, January 22, 2009

How Somali pirates are affecting East Asian ties

SOMALI pirates off the coast of Africa are transforming geopolitical relationships in East Asia.

First, China took the unprecedented step of despatching its navy to the Gulf of Aden to protect Chinese shipping.

Now, Japan is drafting legislation to provide a legal framework for it to despatch warships abroad on anti-piracy missions, despite its pacifist constitution.

But perhaps the most profound ramifications of these ostensibly anti-piracy movements is the impact they will have on Taiwan and its relationship with China, which claims the island as part of its territory.

The Chinese government has said that its naval vessels will provide convoy help for Taiwanese ships as well as those of the mainland and Hong Kong. 

This has created a sensitive, and dangerous, situation for Taiwan, which insists on its own sovereignty.

Thus, it was awkward for Taiwan when China announced last week that among the first beneficiaries of China's protection was a Taiwanese-owned tanker, the FormosaProduct Cosmos, owned by the Formosa Plastics Marine Corporation, as it sailed through the Gulf of Aden. 

Taiwan, whose formal name is the Republic of China, does not want to be seen as under the sovereign protection of the mainland, known as the People's Republic of China.

The following day, Chao Chien-min, vice-chairman of the cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council, said the Taiwanese government had not been involved in arranging for the Chinese navy's escort of the ship. 

He said that the tanker was registered in Liberia and was rented out to a South Korean company and so should not be considered a Taiwanese ship.

China last month offered to help protect Taiwanese ships that came under attack from Somali pirates but, Chao said, Taiwan was not prepared to accept China's offer. 

In fact, Taiwan has declined to set up any mechanism for Taiwanese ships to request help from the Chinese navy.

No doubt, Taiwan is fearful that if it were to accept such a service, the international community would come to think of the island as part of China, like Hong Kong, and its nationals as being subject to Chinese jurisdiction as well as its protection.

After all, acceptance of Chinese protection would make Taiwan appear little more than a ward of China in the eyes of the world.

The day after the Chinese navy escorted the Taiwanese tanker, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), Washington's de facto embassy, issued a statement saying that the US navy had a responsibility to render help to any vessel in distress anywhere in the world that requests its help.

However, AIT made clear that it did not offer naval escorts for Taiwanese merchant vessels.

Thus, the United States, which is the ultimate guarantor of Taiwan's security, is not able to match the offer being made by China.

Taiwan has made known its willingness to accept protection from other countries, such as the US and the European Union. 

And if Japan does decide to send its navy into the Gulf of Aden, then presumably Taiwan would be willing to accept its help as well.

That being the case, Taiwan has little reason to refuse help from the Chinese navy, if it is seen as part of an international flotilla patrolling the area. 

There are, after all, 45 warships from various countries in the area, and only three of them are Chinese.

The problem is that it is one thing to be protected by an international armada, it is something else to be taken under the wing of the Chinese navy.

The ideal solution would be for Taiwan to send out its own navy to protect Taiwanese shipping. But Taiwan's diplomatic isolation makes this difficult.

None of the countries in the surrounding area recognises Taiwan, and so its naval vessels may have difficulty obtaining permission to use ports along the way for refuelling.

This technical difficulty may be difficult for Taiwan to overcome. 

That is why Taiwanese Foreign Minister Francisco Ou has said that seeking foreign help could be a "more plausible" way for Taiwan to deal with the piracy problem.

This is a formidable challenge for Taiwan. 

Beijing is offering itself as the protector of Chinese ships and if Taiwan itself is unable to provide this protection or solicit such help from other nations, it would be difficult to fault Taiwanese shipowners if they avail themselves of the help that is being offered.

And therein lies a slippery slope.

Source: NST Online, op-ed piece by Frank Ching

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