The Debate

Taiwan’s Next President Must Protect its Sovereignty

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The Debate

Taiwan’s Next President Must Protect its Sovereignty

The country’s next leader must continue to assert without ambiguity its claims in the South China Sea.

Taiwan’s Next President Must Protect its Sovereignty

An image of Taiping Island.

Credit: Google Maps

On December 12, the 69th anniversary of the return of Taiping Island from Japan to the Republic of China, Interior Minister Chen Wei-zen presided over the opening of a renovated wharf and a newly constructed lighthouse on the island. The event occurred amid aggressive actions by other claimants and calls for all stakeholders to seek peaceful resolution to sovereignty disputes. Coast Guard Administration Minister Wang Chung-yi and officials from other government agencies accompanied Interior Minister Chen.

As part of the ceremony, a memorial plaque signed by President Ma Ying-jeou was installed, engraved with the words “Peace in the South China Sea and our national territory secure forever.”

Indeed, there is no dispute that the ROC on Taiwan has, for more than 60 years, held sovereignty over and governed Taiping. The ROC reclaimed sovereignty over the Tungsha (Pratas), Shisha (Paracel), and Nansha (Spratlys) from Japan in 1946, and erected markers as well as garrisoned troops on major islands in these island groups. As the largest of the Spratly Islands, ROC sovereignty over Taiping declares to the international community that the islands in the South China Sea and its surrounding waters are an inherent part of the ROC.

Taiping is crucial to Taiwan’s sovereignty claims, because under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, if Taiping is defined as an uninhabitable reef, its marine territorial area will extend a maximum of 12 nautical miles, while if it is categorized as an island, the exclusive economic zone will stretch 200 nautical miles, which for Taiping creates a total marine territory of 126,000 nautical square miles.

Coast Guard forces stationed on Taiping Island rear livestock, grow fruits and vegetables, utilize phosphate ore and fishery resources, and the four groundwater wells provide 65 metric tons of water a day. Thus, Taiping certainly meets UNCLOS Article 121’s definition of an island as a naturally formed land mass surrounded by water and capable of sustaining human habitation or economic life. Taiping is not a reef, whether from the perspective of law, economy or geography.

Earlier this year President Ma proposed a South China Sea Peace Initiative that sets aside sovereignty issues while jointly developing resources. After he proposed an East China Sea Peace Initiative in 2012 that similarly calls on parties to set aside sovereignty disputes and jointly develop resources, Taiwan and Japan in 2013 signed a fisheries agreement that includes disputed waters in the East China Sea. This shows that clear policies combined with diplomatic efforts can maintain ROC sovereignty claims.

If elected, the Kuomintang’s (KMT) candidate in the January 16 presidential election, Eric Chu Li-luan, will continue peaceful development policies while maintaining the ROC’s sovereignty claims.

For Taiping, this will include efforts at ecological preservation and low carbon emissions. As mayor of Taiwan’s most populous metropolis, New Taipei City, Chu’s environmental policies were recently recognized by the London-based Carbon Disclosure Project for action plans, strategies and reaching carbon footprint reduction targets, and by the New York-based Compact of Mayors, the world’s largest coalition of city leaders committed to combating climate change, as the first city in Asia to achieve full compliance with climate change action.

Despite media reports in Taiwan that the American Institute in Taiwan pressured President Ma not to attend the December 12 ceremony on Taiping, he retains the right to visit sovereign ROC territory.

During a speech in Taipei on December 17, Evan S. Medeiros, former senior director for Asian affairs at the United States’ National Security Council, said that while the proposed South China Sea Peace Initiative is helpful to the ongoing sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, had President Ma visited Taiping, it could also destabilize what is already a fragile situation and put tension on Taiwan-U.S. ties. He noted that resolution of South China Sea sovereignty dispute requires “vision, creativity with strength and flexibility” from all claimants.

In a December 17 statement, Representative Matt Salmon, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, praised Taiwan’s initiatives in the South China Sea. He noted that the fisheries agreement with the Philippines “should serve as an example for other countries in the region in how to resolve conflicts peacefully and in a way that benefits all parties involved.”

Over the last week, several other Members of Congress issued statements that support Taiwan’s current policies in the South China Sea. Representative Donald Payne, a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, stated that Taiping qualifies as an island according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Representative Scott DesJarlais, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, stated that the Taiping “infrastructure project will help support free and safe passage of ships through the surrounding waters, further enabling Taiwan to offer humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and provide emergency rescue support to passing vessels.” Representative Madeleine Bordallo, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Readiness, issued a statement that praises Taiwan’s efforts to develop Taiping into a location for joint scientific research which can be conducted by Taiwan and other partners.

Statements of support were also issued by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who serves on the House Homeland Security Committee, and Representative Mike Bishop, who serves on the House Committee on the Judiciary. The next ROC president is constitutionally required to protect our national sovereignty. In the South China Sea, this means our president must have clear policies amid competing claims by the ROC, Brunei, mainland China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

However, our opponent in the upcoming election, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, continues to avoid statements that clearly state to voters that if elected, she will protect the ROC’s sovereignty claims. Her recent record in this regard should give our voters reason for concern.

In July of this year, former ROC President Lee Teng-hui, during a visit to Japan, publicly stated that the Diaoyutai Islands belong to Japan, and are not ROC territory. This is despite the clear historical evidence and international law that Japan returned the Diaoyutai to the ROC in 1945. Ms. Tsai did not strongly refute Lee’s statements.

With regard to the South China Sea, in September Ms. Tsai told foreign diplomats that if elected, she will “engage in dialogue with different parties with the purpose of finding a diplomatic solution” to address sovereignty disputes. Once again, she preferred ambiguity over clarity. This reminds us of her statements to foreign, but not domestic, audiences that she will maintain the status quo in cross straits relations.

Regardless of whether it wins or loses the election, the KMT will continue to assert without ambiguity the ROC’s sovereignty over Taiping and other islands in the South China Sea. We challenge the DPP to do the same.

Eric Huang is head of the KMT International Affairs Department and international spokesperson for Eric Chu’s presidential campaign.