On July 12, an arbitral tribunal in The Hague issued a landmark ruling, overturning many of China’s claims in the South China Sea. The case, Republic of Philippines v. People’s Republic of China, was initiated in 2013, when Manila filed legal objections to Beijing’s claims and behavior in the disputed area. The case has attracted worldwide attention – particularly in Taiwan.
Taiwan shares many of its South China Sea claims with the PRC – in fact, the claims officially originated not with the PRC but with the Republic of China (ROC) government in the immediate post-war era. When the ROC moved its capital to Taipei at the end of the Chinese Civil War, it brought its territorial claims. Taiwan thus found itself in the uncomfortable position of having its claims challenged – through the Philippines’ case against China – without having an opportunity to participate in the case. Taiwan, which is not a member of the United Nations, is likewise not a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); there was no legal avenue for Taipei to insert itself into the case. Even Taiwan’s request to send an observer delegation to the hearings was denied.
Most importantly for Taiwan, the tribunal took up the question of the status of Itu Aba, known as Taiping Island in Taiwan. The island, the largest naturally occurring feature in the Spratlys group, is occupied by Taiwan and houses a military garrison, a hospital, and a farm. Taipei strenuously argued its case that Itu Aba is capable of sustaining human habitation, with its freshwater wells and ability to grow produce, and is thus an island under UNCLOS. That, in turn, would give Taipei a claim to a 200 nautical mile EEZ extending from Itu Aba and encompassing a wide swath of the South China Sea.
Because Taipei was not able to officially participate in the case, it made its arguments in the court of public opinion, taking journalists to the island for a tour of its facilities and posting numerous images of Itu Aba online. At the last minute, the tribunal accepted an amicus curiae briefing from the Chinese (Taiwan) Society of International Law, which made the legal argument that Itu Aba should be considered an island.
The tribunal, however, ultimately disagreed. It found that Itu Aba – along with the rest of the Spratlys – is not an island, as it cannot sustain a human community without external aid. Taiwan’s response was immediate.
“We absolutely will not accept [the tribunal’s decision] and we maintain that the ruling is not legally binding on the ROC,” the Presidential Office of Taiwan said in a statement. The statement pointed out that the tribunal did not consult with Taiwan or invite it to participate in the case, yet the ruling has “seriously undermined” Taiwan’s maritime rights in the South China Sea.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued its own statement, calling the ruling “completely unacceptable to the government of the Republic of China.” The Ministry also explained Taiwan’s reasons for concluding that the decision has “no legally binding force on the ROC.” First, the statement said, “In the text of the award, the ROC is referred to as ‘Taiwan Authority of China.’ This inappropriate designation is demeaning to the status of the ROC as a sovereign state.”
Second, the Ministry points out that Itu Aba was not included in the Philippines’ original case – that is, it was not one of the features that Manila specifically asked the tribunal to define as an island, rock, or low-tide elevation. “However, the tribunal took it upon itself to expand its authority” and make a determination on all of the Spratlys, the statement noted. “This decision severely jeopardizes the legal status of the South China Sea Islands, over which the ROC exercises sovereignty, and their relevant maritime rights.”
“The ROC government reiterates that the South China Sea Islands are part of the territory of the ROC and that it will take resolute action to safeguard the country’s territory and relevant maritime rights,” the Ministry said.
Taiwan’s legislators also voiced their disapproval. Wu Ping-jui, the secretary general of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislative caucus, reiterated that the ruling was “absolutely unacceptable.” His counterpart with the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), Lin Te-fu, agreed that Taiwan “absolutely cannot accept” what Lin called the “unfair and unjust” ruling.
KMT spokesperson Chou Chih-wei went even further, accusing the arbitral tribunal of “telling lies” and “bullying.”
Meanwhile, the deputy director general of Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency reaffirmed that Taiwanese fishermen would keep plying their trade in the waters surrounding Itu Aba – and that Taiwan’s Coast Guard would provide them with protection.
“Our fishermen certainly can continue fishing there. The government will protect them,” Huang Hung-yen said, indicating that Taipei still considers the area part of its exclusive economic zone.
Prior to the ruling, on Sunday, Taiwan’s Coast Guard dispatched a 1,800 ton vessel, the Wei Hsing, to Itu Aba for a resupply and patrol mission. According to Taiwan’s Presidential Office, Taipei also plans to send a naval vessel, a Lafayette-class frigate, on a South China Sea patrol. The frigate was originally scheduled to depart on Thursday; its mission has been pushed forward one day to Wednesday, apparently in response to the ruling.