- - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

At a recent hearing of the Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on America’s future in Asia, I noted the efforts of President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan, one of the leaders in the region I most admire, to resolve regional disputes peacefully by exercising restraint.

I pointed specifically to his East China Sea Peace Initiative, which he announced 18 months ago on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty between the Republic of China and Japan following the conclusion of World War II. In his initiative, Mr. Ma advocated following international law, continuing dialogue and negotiating the sharing of natural resources to reduce tensions. Significantly, the announcement of the initiative in the summer of 2012 occurred just as the long-simmering territorial dispute over the Senkaku-Daioyutai-Diaoyu island chain was reaching a boiling point with anti-Japanese crowds demonstrating in cities across China.

As the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I fast approaches, there have been increasing comparisons made to the escalating tensions that exist at present in East Asia and those between the great powers in Europe in 1914. “The Guns of August” analogy is certainly a cause for grave concern, as global prosperity was severely damaged and an entire generation was slaughtered in that conflict a century ago. The world cannot afford a second mistake or miscalculation along the lines of that tragic incident at Sarajevo.

Yet, since President Ma’s diplomatic initiative, the situation in East Asia has further deteriorated. In November, Beijing announced the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, which was unnecessarily provocative to America’s allies and partners in the region, including Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Everyone is waiting to see if the other shoe drops with a similar Chinese announcement regarding the South China Sea. In addition, unresolved historical issues from the Pacific War have again come to the forefront, with two major northeast Asia treaty allies of the United States, South Korea and Japan, unable to conduct diplomatic discussions at the highest level as a result.

Timing is, of course, everything for diplomatic initiatives. The critical developments over the past 18 months demonstrate more clearly than ever that some constructive framework, even some grand strategy, may be required in the Asia-Pacific region to defuse the inflammatory tinderbox. That framework, I believe, is offered by the example of Mr. Ma’s management of cross-strait relations since he took office almost six years ago.

As tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea, the East China Sea and on the Korean peninsula, there has been one bright spot in East Asia where constructive diplomacy has led the way: cross-Strait relations. While the United States recognizes and appreciates Mr. Ma’s efforts in this regard, we cannot at the same time let our guard down. In this 35th anniversary year of the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, the cornerstone for U.S.-Taiwan relations, we must continue to provide our key strategic partner with those defensive weapons as called for in the act, to give Taipei the confidence to continue engaging constructively with Beijing on a broad range of economic and diplomatic issues.

A major breakthrough for this cross-strait diplomacy was achieved on Feb. 11. For the first time since 1949, an official Taiwan representative, Wang Yu-chi, the head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, held talks with his counterpart, Zhang Zijun, in the historic city of Nanjing, former capital of the Republic of China. While the pair reportedly focused their discussions on burgeoning economic ties, which have seen cross-strait trade volume double since 2008 to $197.2 billion last year, there was also an agreement reached on the establishment of a formal communications channel between the two sides.

This will help serve as a mechanism to assure that any potential future tense situation could be defused by a timely exchange of views. This stands in marked contrast to other East-Asian relationships where there is currently a breakdown in communications. Mr. Wang was further given the opportunity to address students at Nanjing University during his mainland visit, where he freely discussed Taiwan’s democratic values.

Mr. Ma’s diplomatic team has also worked hard to defuse other regional tensions. The killing of a Taiwanese fisherman by Philippine coast guard officials in disputed fishing waters last spring threatened to upend the traditionally friendly relationship between Taipei and Manila. A combination of firm advocacy for accountability with regard to the death of its citizen along with a constructive use of diplomatic channels by Taipei resulted in a resolution of the incident in a manner that preserved positive bilateral relations.

Similarly, the signing last year of a fishery agreement by Taipei and Tokyo, following 17 years of deadlocked negotiations, stands as an example of the constructive resolution of an East China Sea resource dispute. By providing for an amiable distribution of marine products while avoiding mention of underlying sovereignty claims, the agreement ensured that Taiwanese fishermen would have access to an additional 1,400 square nautical miles of fishing waters. Some 800 Taiwanese trawlers will now reportedly be able to peacefully catch more than 40,000 tons of fish in these waters each year. These are just two concrete examples of where Taiwan has pointed the way to a peaceful resolution of Asia’s contentious maritime questions.

President Ma has provided the region with a concrete diplomatic blueprint on how to avoid confrontation over sovereignty and disputed resource issues through his East China Sea Peace Initiative. Now is the time to put this initiative into effect in order to develop the region’s abundant marine resources without the historic baggage of territorial disputes. This concrete proposal to pull back from the brink in the East China Sea needs the serious attention of our nation’s diplomats.

Matt Salmon is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Arizona.