By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) came out with its ruling on South China Sea. The verdict was that China’s nine-dash line and its claims based on historical rights are null and void. As expected, China has rejected the ruling as invalid. This is clearly a victory for the Philippines which had taken the case to the PCA. Invalidation of China’s historical claims to the South China Sea is also a big boost for other claimants, including Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. Taiwan, the other claimant, and China have claimed almost 90 percent of the South China Sea territories, whereas the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei each have claimed sovereignty over different islands and reefs in this area. The claimant countries have also laid claims to exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles around each island, as per UNCLOS regulations. Even as the South China Sea has been contested for decades, the recent legal battle became unavoidable in the face of China forcibly taking control of the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 over fishing disputes, leaving the weaker Philippines little choice but to take the case to the PCA in February 2013.
Taiwan’s position on the South China Sea and the East China Sea is similar to that of China. It must also be noted that Taiwan controls Itu Aba/Taiping Island, the largest naturally formed island in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea. However, until recently, it appeared that Taiwan had made a political call not to assert those claims or talk about them openly. In the run-up to and following the PCA verdict, Taiwan has taken a more active position on these conflicts. In January 2016, then President Ma Ying-jeou visited Taiping Island, possibly illustrating its long-standing claim and sovereignty over the island. Even though previous leaders have also visited the island, a visit so close to the South China Sea verdict was seen as sending a message about its own historical claims. The question is whether Taiwan is departing from its earlier policy and if so, whether it is pragmatic to do so?
In May 2015, then President Ma Ying-jeou had come out with a South China Sea Peace Initiative asking claimant countries to put aside the disputes and finalise resource-sharing agreements. The initiative called upon “all parties concerned to exercise restraint in the South China Sea; observe relevant international law, including the UN Charter and UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and settle disputes peacefully, while jointly guaranteeing freedom of navigation and overflight; shelve sovereignty disputes and cooperate on the development of resources; and establish coordination mechanisms for non-traditional security issues such as scientific research, environmental protection, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.” President Ma went on to highlight that “sovereignty cannot be divided, but resources can be shared.”
Taking this line forward, Taiwan’s new President Tsai Ing-wen in her May 20 inaugural speech called upon countries that have made claims to both East China Sea and South China Sea to shelve their disputes and work towards joint development of the region.
Most recently, in the run up to the PCA’s ruling, Taiwan has taken steps that can be construed as assertive. Taiwan’s defence minister Feng Shih-kuan stated on July 7 in the legislature that “Taiwan’s military is prepared for a possible escalation of tensions in the region following the tribunal’s ruling on June 12.” Following the PCA verdict, Presidential Office spokesman Alex Huang has come out saying, “We hereby stress that the Republic of China [ROC] enjoys rights as afforded by international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea over South China Sea islands and their relevant waters.” Minister of Foreign Affairs, David Tawei Lee too rejected the verdict and said it is totally “unacceptable.” A day after the PCA verdict, the Cabinet spokesperson Tung Chen-yuan stated that Taipei will “strengthen its Coast Guard patrols.. in order to protect its fishermen there [Taiping Island].” An 1800-ton “Wei Hsing” patrol vessel has been in the area since July 10 for the same purpose. Additionally, Taiwan plans to send a 1000-ton Coast Guard Administration (CGA) patrol vessel, “Taitung” and it is meant to remain in the island indefinitely. On July 13, Taiwan has also sent a La Fayette-class Navy frigate on a patrol mission. Before it set sail for the island, the President addressed the crew on the vessel saying, “This patrol mission (will) demonstrate our determination to protect our country’s interests.”
Recent statements from Taiwan as well as the military deployments must be particularly pleasing to Beijing. China may have found a perfect ally to raise the pitch in making these territorial claims and rubbishing the legal verdict. But Taipei’s position does not appear to be the consequence of any desire to improve ties with the mainland by supporting it on this issue, but more a consequence of greater nationalism of the new government. This makes Taiwan’s reaction particularly problematic because Taiwan’s actions will likely anger the other claimant countries and it could possibly lose some friends that it needs in the long term. Taiwan has to approach the territorial issues from a pragmatic and political basis rather than a nationalistic sentiment which is what is driving the current approach. Taiwan’s earlier call to approach the sovereignty and territorial issues from a political and economic perspective was a judicious one. If Taipei were to continue with this new, nationalist approach, it could get further isolated. Taiwan should also recognise that these developments are taking place at a time when China has become most assertive under the nationalistic leadership of Xi Jinping. The change of dispensation in Taiwan has not been particularly welcomed by Beijing and Cross Strait relations are not at its best. This is certainly not the best time for Taiwan to alienate itself from its friends in the region. If there is military adventurism by China directed at Taiwan, Taipei would need all the support it can get. Therefore, Taiwan has to take extra care not to isolate itself from the larger Asian community. It may not be wise to pick fights on multiple fronts.