The recent confrontations in the South China Sea between China, Vietnam and the Philippines, and the subsequent street demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are an unwelcome reminder that long simmering tensions in the waters off Southeast Asia could boil over at any time.
The past month has seen diplomats and officials in Beijing, Hanoi and Manila engage in a round of accusations, protests and denials, with even usually quiet Singapore prompted to call on China to clarify its territorial claims.
Taiwan, meanwhile, reiterated its position, emphasizing its sovereignty over the contested territory. According to a June 15 statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan noted ‘that the Nansha Islands, the Shisha Islands, the Chungsha Islands and the Tungsha Islands, as well as their surrounding waters, sea beds and subsoil are all an inherent part of the territory of the Republic of China (Taiwan).’ Moreover, on June 22, as reported by Channel News Asia, Minister of Foreign Affairs Timothy C.Y. Yang spoke of increasing military patrols on Taiwan-held islands.
Odd as it may seem given their history of animosity, the South China Sea territorial claims of the governments of China and Taiwan are nearly identical. Both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China base their modern day claims on the so-called ‘nine-dotted’ or ‘U-shaped’ line visible on maps issued by the then Nanjing-based Republic of China government in 1947.
In the years since 1947, Taiwan has issued periodic statements regarding its claims. In 1993, it asserted sovereignty over the bulk of the South China Sea, including the Spratly, Pratas, and Paracel islands. In 1995, Taipei both reiterated its claim to the ‘U-shaped line’ and initiated construction on Itu Aba Island (Tai Ping Tao) in the Spratlys despite longstanding territorial claims to that tiny island by the Philippines and Vietnam as well as China.
The current Taiwanese position hasn’t changed in any fundamental way in the years since 1947, despite both Taiwan and the region having evolved dramatically in that time.
But hewing to the nine-dotted line claim of 1947 in 2011 imposes a needless liability on modern day Taiwan. Taiwan needs good relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours. Democratic Taiwan wants to, as it should, be perceived as a responsible international actor both in Asia and globally. The excessive maritime claims embodied by the 1947 declaration, however, fly in the face of this. Taipei’s continued adherence to China’s maritime territorial claims is therefore inimical to Taiwan’s long-term regional and international interests.
By holding to outdated and legally untenable claims, Taiwan risks alienating its ASEAN neighbours while its already deep economic ties to them continue to grow. By siding with Beijing on the excessive maritime claims inherited from 1947, an already isolated Taipei risks alienating neighbours that are increasingly wary of China, and that could potentially become more sympathetic to Taiwan.
Taiwan has now, in the choppy waters of the South China Sea, an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to international harmony and to being a constructive force for regional stability. Taipei ought to modify its maritime territorial claims in a manner that’s both more acceptable to its Southeast Asian neighbours, and in accordance with international law.
Taiwan would be wise to adopt a modified claim based on the 200 nautical mile limit as enunciated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in its definition of exclusive economic zones. By adopting this stance, Taipei would be able to maintain a claim to a substantial portion of the South China Sea while stepping back from those territorial claims that are particularly aggressive, ambitious and intellectually offensive to its neighbours. Doing so would also bring Taipei’s positions – unlike those of Beijing – into compliance with international law and the UNCLOS.