As planned, on Thursday, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou traveled to Itu Aba, the largest naturally-occurring member of the disputed Spratly Island group in the South China Sea. The stated reason for the trip was to greet the roughly 200 Taiwanese coast guard personnel stationed on the island, the lone feature in the South China Sea controlled by Taiwan.
Ma traveled to Itu Aba (known as Taiping Island in Chinese) on board a C-130 transport plane, making use of the newly-extended airstrip on the island. He arrived around 11 a.m. local time, and was back in Taipei before 6 p.m. Ma was the second Taiwanese president to visit Itu Aba, following a trip in 2008 by Chen Shui-bian.
Ma’s visit functioned as a strong confirmation of Taiwanese control over the island, which is 1,600 kilometers away from the island of Taiwan. As Ma put it in his speech on Itu Aba, he chose to visit the coast guard personnel on Itu Aba “to show the great importance we attach to you and your mission.”
He also used his speech to reemphasize Taiwan’s claims over the South China Sea, which stem from the days when the Republic of China (ROC) governed the entire Chinese mainland. “Whether from the perspective of history, geography, or international law, the Nansha (Spratly) Islands, Shisha (Paracel) Islands, Chungsha (Macclesfield Bank) Islands, and Tungsha (Pratas) Islands, as well as their surrounding waters, are an inherent part of ROC territory and waters,” Ma said. “This is indisputable.”
Ma began his speech with that confirmation of Taiwan’s claims, and ended it with a spirited defense of Itu Aba’s status as an island under the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Philippines’ South China Sea arbitration case against China (of which Taiwan is notably not a part), includes the claim that Itu Aba is merely a rock and thus not entitled to a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. Taiwan has been vigorously fighting that claim for the past few months, emphasizing the island’s fresh water wells and ability to grow produce and sustain both livestock and human habitation.
“The economic, environmental, and cultural realms all provide evidence sufficient to show that the island has — and has had for over 100 years — ample resources to be self-sufficient,” Ma argued, saying the Philippines’ claims to the contrary “are totally wrong.”
Yet in between these declarations of Taiwan’s sovereignty, Ma used the bulk of his speech to emphasize his “roadmap” for fostering peace and stability in the disputed areas of the South China Sea. Ma’s remarks here expanded on last year’s introduction of a South China Sea Peace Initiative, which centers on setting aside sovereignty issues in favor of joint development of the South China Sea.
Ma’s “roadmap” for his peace initiative, as described on Itu Aba, calls for creating a “cooperation and development mechanism” with “equal participation and resource sharing among all parties concerned in the region.” The cooperation mechanism is based on all parties agreeing to shelve their sovereignty disputes – not giving up their claims, but not actively pursuing them. Once the parties – presumably the six claimants, Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – have agreed to shelve their disputes and “replace military confrontation with peaceful consultations,” the next step would be creating cooperation mechanisms on issues such as resource exploration and conservation, “marine environmental protection and scientific research, maritime crime prevention, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”
Ma said that Taiwan would use Itu Aba “as the starting point for implementation of the South China Sea Peace Initiative” by making the island a center for “peace and rescue operations, as well as an ecologically friendly and low-carbon island.” That will involve international scientific research projects conducted on ecological and marine issues; upgrading the island’s solar and water management systems; and using the island’s hospital as the base for an emergency rescue center.
“Through these concrete actions, we aim to demonstrate to the international community that the Republic of China is committed to fulfilling its international obligations and actively serving as a peacemaker and provider of humanitarian aid, so as to truly transform the South China Sea into a sea of peace and cooperation,” Ma said.
The logic here for Taiwan is clear. With solid control over Itu Aba and no real interest in actively expanding its control over the other features it claims, a shelving of all the disputes is in Taipei’s interests (by contrast, Beijing, which controls fewer features than rival claimants Vietnam and the Philippines, may have less interest in shelving disputes).
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s roadmap for the South China Sea Peace Initiative would also grant Taipei something very rare and precious – a seat at an international table in resolving regional issues. Given Beijing’s zealous attempts to limit Taipei’s international space, it’s extremely unlikely the mainland would ever allow Taiwan to join a multilateal framework with the other South China Sea claimants such as the one Ma described. Still, Taiwan can still move to pursue bilateral agreements with other parties, as it has done by signing an agreement with the Philippines for law enforcement cooperation on fishing issues.
Barring meaningful participation in regional conversation, the least Taiwan can do is, as Ma put it, “demonstrate to the international community that the Republic of China is committed to fulfilling its international obligations and actively serving as a peacemaker.” Whether Ma’s visit will achieve that goal, however, is an open question – before he left, both the United States and Vietnam expressed opposition to the trip, saying it could exacerbate tensions.
Meanwhile, with Taiwan ready to inaugurate a new president on May 20, it’s unclear what will become of Ma’s initiative. President-elect Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has said she will maintain Taiwan’s sovereignty claims to Itu Aba and “the surrounding waters.” She, like Ma, has also called for all parties in the disputes to respect UNCLOS and freedom of navigation and overflight. But it’s likely her plan for achieving those goals won’t look exactly like Ma’s “roadmap” presented at Itu Aba.