- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2014

Taiwan suffered collateral damage in Vietnam’s anti-China riots on May 13, when 107 Taiwanese companies were vandalized and 10 factories were shut down.

But the incident crystallized Taipei’s awkward international position in the conflicts engulfing China and several of its neighbors, including Taiwan.

At least two Chinese nationals were confirmed dead in the riots, and Sino-Vietnamese tensions have reached a new high. The riots occurred in response to Beijing’s installation of an oil rig near the Paracel Islands that China took from Vietnam in 1974 after a naval battle.

Apparently, the Vietnamese demonstrators were unable to tell the Chinese from the Taiwanese during the protests.

In the aftermath, Taipei rushed to supply Taiwanese nationals in Vietnam with more than 20,000 large stickers, written in both Vietnamese and English, saying “I am from Taiwan” to tell future attackers that they are not the intended target of their violence.

The bigger problem for Taiwan is related to the island democracy’s existential angst: How can Taipei distinguish and distance itself from Beijing in territorial claims made by both governments without offending China’s communist government, which claims all of Taiwan as its own?

Specifically, since the Paracel Islands are claimed by Vietnam, China and Taiwan, should Taipei also protest Beijing’s installation of an oil rig there?

The fact that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration did not lodge any protest against China’s oil-rig gambit has given Beijing an opportunity to exploit the Ma government’s weakness and push a plan for Taiwan to join its effort as a “unified Chinese” voice to rebuff Vietnam’s claim in the region.

That would nullify Taiwan’s legitimacy as a de facto independent state with its own sovereign claims.

Taiwanese officials now are trying to crystallize Taiwan’s official position on this and other existential matters affirming island’s self-rule status. Officials must act quickly to extinguish criticism from the public and opposition lawmakers.

“There will be no space for cooperation between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait!” said Wu Mei-hong, spokeswoman for the Taiwanese government when asked May 15 to respond to Beijing’s call for joint action against Vietnam.

On the same day, Taiwanese Foreign Minister David Lin issued an emphatic message to the public during a hearing in the legislature. When asked by an opposition lawmaker why he had not convened an international press conference to declare that Taiwan is not part of China, Mr. Lin replied: “We and the Chinese mainland do not have a hierarchical ownership relationship.” (In other words, China does not own Taiwan and Taiwan does not belong to China.)

This is different, in tone at least, from the current position of Mr. Ma, who proposed an “East Sea Peace Initiative” a few years ago in which he asked for international sharing of natural resources in disputed areas of the Pacific without insisting on each nation’s sovereignty claims.

But China does not believe in either sharing natural resources or minimizing the issue of sovereignty disputes with all of its maritime neighbors. Beijing consistently has dramatized sovereignty disputes with its neighbors, while urging Taiwan to merge its claims with China’s over South China Sea islands and territories.

Meanwhile, Vietnam also is focused on Taiwan’s dilemma and is working to drive a wedge between Beijing and Taipei.

Since the riots, Hanoi’s chief diplomatic representative in Taipei, Bui Trong Van, offered repeated public and official apologies to the Taiwanese government and the Taiwanese people for the collateral damage, promising compensation for the vandalized properties and further tax cuts for Taiwanese businesses in Vietnam.

Currently, hundreds of Taiwanese enterprises are in Vietnam, with a total direct investment of more than $28 billion.

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com and @Yu_Miles.

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