If only Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs could rack up allies as quickly as its scandals or neighbor alienating territorial claims.
A statement released by the ministry this month – the ninth such missive in the past 18 months – called for competing nations to respect the “Republic of China’s unwavering sovereignty over the South China Sea.”
The Republic of China – Taiwan’s official name since Chiang Kai-shek’s battered forces cemented control of the island following their civil war loss to Mao Zedong’s troops – claims about 3.5 million square kilometers of the oil and gas-rich body of water based on “historical evidence” that Chinese fishermen once plied its waters and trade routes and desolate outcrops were established.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Taipei makes its claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which would be fine if it was a party to UNCLOS, or any other U.N. body or agreement. But the Republic of China was expelled from the United Nations in 1971, when the General Assembly recognized “the Peoples’ Republic of China as the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations.”
While Beijing’s oft-criticized “nine-dotted line” claim has been ridiculed by its Association of Southeast Asian Nation neighbors, Taiwan’s virtually identical declaration has been hammered as “frivolous” and “out of touch with Asia’s diplomatic reality.”
“I wish they would shut up. There isn’t a single Asian country that even recognizes them. How are they relevant?” asks one Southeast Asian diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They lost their war 65 years ago and they still act like they are a great power. You would think show some humility where these frivolous claims are concerned. Discretion being the better part of valor, and all that.”
Critics of Taiwan’s handling of the situation say Taipei should duplicate its position on its other constitutionally enshrined and often bizarre Asian land claims – by ignoring them.
Taiwan’s 1947 Constitution, written while Chiang Kai-sheik still had a Chinese capital, makes territorial land claims in all or part of 10 countries, including independent Mongolia, Tibet, and parts of India, Burma, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But those claims are never prosecuted by Taipei, and are only still enshrined in the Constitution because Beijing views any amendment to Taiwan’s territorial claims as a step towards independence and away from its “One China Policy.”
Both the U.S. and China are keen to retain the “status quo.” The U.S. State Department, in particular, is keen to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait by minimizing moves by Taipei that the Middle Kingdom views as provocative.
“I don’t think they have a choice. If Taiwan starts walking away from elements in the Constitution, then it’s like pulling at a thread and where would it stop,” says Douglas Paal, a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, which works as a de facto U.S. embassy in lieu of formal diplomatic ties with the island republic.
While walking away from Taiwan’s constitutional bind is one thing, observers say that Taipei’s pursuance of a claim it knows it can’t win at the expense of ruffling regional feathers is quite another.
“They are working with China on this because our claim backs up Beijing’s. It’s this arrogance of a grand ultra-nationalist vision. But I would argue that if you want to use claims like this as potential bargaining chip in negotiations with China then there should be some credibility to them,” says Michael Kau, a former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs under the independence leaning Democratic Progressive Party. “This idea of treating this huge body of water as ours by right of dubious historical claims, it’s not only not credible, it’s crazy.”