Taiwan’s South China Sea Headache

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Taiwan’s South China Sea Headache

Caught between its own territorial claims and international criticism of the “nine-dashed line”, what is Taiwan to do?

Taiwan’s South China Sea Headache
Credit: Taiwan Ministry of National Defense

One week ago today, the U.S. sent a destroyer within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese-controlled Subi Reef in the South China Sea on a freedom of navigation patrol. Two days later, on October 29, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that it does have jurisdiction to hear the Philippines’ case challenging China’s “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea. In other words, it’s been a big week for the South China Sea disputes.

Discussions of the South China Sea tend to center around China – its “aggression” or “assertiveness”; the ambiguity of its claims; its moves to overturn the “status quo” or create “facts on the water” by building artificial islands. But China isn’t alone in claiming wide swathes of the South China Sea based on “historical” claims that seem out-of-step with UNCLOS. In fact, Taiwan – a close U.S. partner and generally seen as an upstanding supporter of international law – has claims almost identical to Beijing’s, a function of the fact that the Republic of China government was the originator of China’s claim to the u-shaped line encircling most of the South China Sea.

Taiwan is in something of a bind when it comes to the South China Sea issue. On the one hand, no government wants to relinquish territorial claims – in Taiwan’s case in particular, the constitution dictates that “the territory of the Republic of China within its existing national boundaries shall not be altered except by a resolution of the National Assembly.” That means, legally speaking, Taipei could not simply relinquish its claim over the South China Sea features even if it were so inclined.

And there’s no evidence that Taipei is interested in doing so. In response to the events of last week, Taiwan’s Executive Yuan made sure to reiterate that Taiwan will take all necessary steps to defend its sovereignty in the South China Sea.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, meanwhile, said that it will plan “emergency response measures” for potential conflicts in the area and will continue to “improve combat capability for the defense of Taiping Island,” the largest of the Spratlys (at least before China’s artificial island-building), which is occupied by Taiwan.

However, though Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea are as extensive and ambiguous as Beijing’s, Taipei does not want to be labeled a violator of international law. Nor does it want to alienate the United States, which still functions as Taiwan’s main security partner. President Ma Ying-jeou tried to thread the needle by announcing his vision for a South China Sea Peace Initiative earlier this year.  The Peace Initiative stipulates that Taiwan will uphold its claims to sovereignty, but calls for all parties to put aside disputes in favor of peaceful settlements in accordance with international law. Ma even proposed pursuing joint development of natural resources in the area.

In response to the USS Lassen’s patrol near Subi Reef, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense also made sure to not only reiterate sovereignty, but its commitment to international law. Defense Minister Guangchi Gao emphasized that Taiwan respects the “principle and spirit of related international acts,” including UNCLOS and respects freedom of navigation rights.

The full statement from Taiwan’s government called for “the coastal states of the South China Sea to respect the provisions and spirit of the UN Charter and UNCLOS, and to exercise restraint, safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea.” All parties should “uphold the freedom of navigation and overflight through the South China Sea, refrain from taking any action that might escalate tensions, and resolve disputes peacefully,” the statement continued.

However, when it comes to the Philippines’ arbitration case, Taiwan has less wiggle room. A key part of the case calls into question the validity of the “nine-dashed line.” Though the case specifically mentioned the “nine-dashed line” only in reference to mainland China, the ruling would have implications for Taiwan’s similar claims. Thus Taipei has been at pains to emphasize that the ruling has nothing to do with Taiwan. A statement from Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that:

The Philippines has not invited the ROC to participate in its arbitration with mainland China , and the arbitral tribunal  has not solicited the ROC’s views. Therefore, the arbitration does not affect the ROC in any way, and the ROC neither recognizes nor accepts related awards.

The statement also makes it clear that Taiping Island “indisputably qualifies as an ‘island’ according to the specifications of Article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”; the Executive Yuan has said that Taiping “certainly can claim [an] exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.” However, Taiwan is not limiting its claim to Taiping Island, as the MOFA statement made clear:

Whether from the perspective of history, geography, or international law, the Nansha (Spratly) Islands, Shisha (Paracel) Islands, Chungsha Islands (Macclesfield Bank), and Tungsha (Pratas) Islands (together known as the South China Sea Islands), as well as their surrounding waters, are an inherent part of ROC territory and waters.

Beijing was pleased with Taiwan’s response, which is viewed as in line with the People’s Republic’s own claims to the South China Sea. “Chinese people from both sides of the Straits have the responsibility and obligation to jointly uphold territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests of the country,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters. Beijing was particularly pleased to see Taiwan saying it “neither recognizes nor accepts” the tribunal’s ruling — although Taipei’s rationale for doing so is very different than Beijing’s.

China has tried before to get Taiwan to coordinate an approach to the South China Sea, but Taiwan has been adamant about pursuing its own approach (Ma’s South China Sea Peace Initiative). Taiwanese officials have said they will not cooperate with China on territorial issues.

But that should not be taken to mean Taipei is giving up its own claims. On the contrary, just before the Philippines presented its oral arguments on the jurisdiction question before the arbitral tribunal, Ma Ying-jeou vowed that Taiwan would “staunchly defend its sovereignty over Taiping [Island] and every right held by the country under international law.”