Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou and the president-elect, Tsai Ing-wen, held a high-profile meeting on March 30. As expected, Ma proactively exchanged opinions with Tsai on protecting Taiwanese sovereignty on the South China Sea; Tsai, meanwhile, emphasized that her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has never changed its stance on Taiwan’s sovereignty over Taiping Island (Itu Aba). She also urged Ma not to “misjudge” to the DPP’s position, without making any substantial explanation. Tsai’s remarks demonstrate the complexity of the South China Sea issue, which she will be facing after taking office on May 20.
After the inauguration, President Tsai and her national security advisors will face two difficult choices: whether to continue Ma’s policies and actions and whether to modify the statements of Taiwan’s sovereign claims to the South China Sea.
Will Tsai Continue Ma’s South China Sea Policy?
It is fair to say that, during his eight-year presidency, Ma put substantial effort toward sovereignty protection in the South China Sea, but he chose not to publicize these moves in order to avoid irritating the United States. For instance, in April 2011, the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) approved an application for oil and gas exploration and exploitation from the China Petroleum Corporation Taiwan (CPC) in Itu Aba and its surrounding areas within 100 nautical miles. The total area is up to 137,381 square meters in size. The approval was further extended to April 2017 right before its expiration in April 2015. The CPC also sent its exploration team to Itu Aba under the escort of the ROC Navy frigates in October 2012. Soon afterward, in 2014 and 2015, the government conducted a “non-living resources investigation in the sea area of the South China Sea” and a “feasibility assessment of hydrology investigation and exploration” under the guidance of the MOEA.
Notably, the approval for CPC’s exploration and exploitation of oil and gas and the “right of resource exploration” is highly significant as a declaration of sovereignty and thus such development can easily attract attention from the other claimant countries. How the DPP government will deal with the “right of exploration,” which is going to expire in April 2017? Will Tsai’s government proactively or passively amend relevant acts and laws to enable the state-owned CPC to apply for an extension from the MOEA? Will the exploration area be constrained? Will the exploration work be continued? All these will be indicators demonstrating Tsai’s attitude toward Taiwan’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
Taiwan also largely upgraded its maritime defense and law enforcement capabilities during Ma’s tenure. Apart from building a dock for large coast guard ships on Itu Aba and placing heavy mortars and 40 mm anti-aircraft guns in Itu Aba as well as Dongsha Island, Taiwan was conducted periodic frigate patrols in the area. In April 2014, a large-scale amphibious assault field drill was conducted by ROC marines sent back to Itu Aba via six ROC Navy warships. It is said there will be no more live exercises at least for the short-term, but the ROC Navy has acquired the necessary information on geography and tactical data, which enables drills to be replicated and simulated in Taiwan. The ROC Navy also spent 45 days completing nautical surveys on Itu Aba and Zhongzhou Reef in 2013 and set up a parachute weather buoy in the surrounding area of Itu Aba in the same year. It will be worth watching to see whether Tsai’s government will continue these measures or not.
In the meantime, in order to respond the Legislative Yuan’s push to set up a boundary marker in the Zhongzhou Reef, the Ministry of Interior Affairs sent cartographic surveying crew many times and accumulated considerable information. It is also a test for Tsai’s government to decide whether to continue this surveying or not.
Will Tsai Modify Statements of Taiwan’s Sovereignty Claims?
Besides making decisions on which of Ma’s policies to continue, Tsai will also have to decide whether or not to adjust her stance on South China Sea sovereignty – especially at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague will make a ruling on the arbitration case between the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China in late May or mid June. Regardless of the ruling, Tsai’s government will definitely face concerns, or even pressure, from all relevant stakeholders.
Even though there are some DPP legislators who oppose maintaining sovereignty over Itu Aba, Tsai and her government are unlikely to give up the island. After all, the airport runway was built under the first DPP government. More recently, a blue paper issued by the DPP in December 2014 clearly stated the party’s plan to “construct Taiping Island as the forward base for foreign humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions.”
The real question is whether the DPP will make any adjustments to the definition of sovereignty. Tsai’s government might do so in order to respond to calls from some political figures in the United States as well as other claimant countries, or simply for the satisfaction some pro-independence supporters within the party might gain from deviating from the PRC. However, if the DPP government chooses to make changes, it should proceed carefully. Altering Taiwan’s position is unlikely to meet the expectation of U.S. officials who want to pressure the PRC; on the contrary, it would likely push Beijing into taking a more aggressive and tougher stance as its defined sovereignty claims would be severely challenged. We saw a similar reaction, for instance, during the crisis over the “nationalization” of the Daioyutai (Senkaku) Islands from July 2012 to November 2014, when the PRC practice so-called “coercive diplomacy.”
Given the current precarious balance between the PRC, the United States, Japan and other relevant countries, it is hard to predict how the dangerous South China Sea situation will evolve if new variables are introduced. This is a sensitive matter for the Tsai government, which may need to be wary of the consequences of sacrificing the cross-strait relationship as well as becoming the prey of hostile superpowers.
Dr. Chieh Chung holds a Ph.D in International Affairs and Strategic Studies from Tamkang University (2015), Taiwan. He served as a legislative aide in the ROC for more than 18 years.